Continuing fighting in various parts of Yemen, which has recently displaced thousands of people especially in Abyan Governorate and the Arhab District of Sana’a, could compromise the nutritional status of those affected, especially children, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warns.
This, it said, could potentially increase morbidity and mortality rates, especially among children under five.
"Yemen could become the next Somalia as child malnutrition is as big as it is in the Horn of Africa," said Geert Cappelaere, a UNICEF representative in Yemen. While malnutrition was widespread in Yemen, the condition of many children had been worsened by displacement, he added.
A recent survey by aid agencies in the Haradh, Bakeel Al Meer and Mustaba districts of Hajjah Governorate found global acute malnutrition (GAM) among children under five at 39 percent, of which 8.5 percent were severe cases. GAM is the percentage of children over six months and under five years old who have moderate or severe acute malnutrition. Prevalence among boys was higher at 44.9 percent compared to 32.7 among girls.
The survey, which covered displaced households residing in and outside camps and host communities, also found higher GAM levels among displaced children (39.7 percent) compared to those from host communities and surrounding areas (34.7 percent).
“The preliminary levels of reported GAM are concerning and exceed the emergency threshold, which is indicative that the situation is deteriorating despite existing interventions in Haradh since December 2009,” according to a situation report issued on 16 August by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Little food for children
Local families who have fled Abyan Governorate said feeding the children has become tough.
"My two-year-old son, Zaid, has been losing weight by the day since he went down with diarrhoea two weeks ago," said Amatalim Saleh, 31, who was sheltering in a school in Mansoura District, Aden Governorate (adjacent to Abyan).
"He also suffers from dehydration, vomiting and loss of appetite," she told IRIN. "The only thing he asks me to give him is water, as his throat is often dry," Saleh, who lost her three-year-old baby girl last month, added.
The family is one of several hundred who have fled Abyan Governorate - a battleground in ongoing fighting between government troops and Islamic militants since 28 May. A report on Yemen’s official news agency puts the total number of people displaced from Abyan so far at 100,000.
Shaima Khalid, a volunteer nurse at the school now being used to house internally displaced persons (IDPs), told IRIN that Zaid has chronic malnutrition.
"Their mother is underweight and has anaemia as a result of undernourishment. How can an undernourished mother have a healthy child?" she asked, adding that through her voluntary work in the school, she had come across several undernourished mothers with malnourished children.
Aid workers say they are trying to help.
“We have established two therapeutic feeding centres in two government-run hospitals - Wahda Hospital in Aden, and Ibn Khaldoon Hospital in Lahj [governorate adjacent to Abyan] - to treat malnourished child IDPs,” Mohammed al-Ebbi, director of UNICEF's Aden office, told IRIN. "Severe cases are given Plumpy’nut following proper diagnosis."
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) reported in December 2010 that Yemen had the highest prevalence of child malnutrition among all Middle East and North African countries.
Yemen also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with official statistics suggesting that 365 out of every 100,000 mothers of reproductive age die during childbirth.
The situation is exacerbated by traditional beliefs. For example, it is customary to reserve the best food portions for the father, while women and children make do with items of lower nutritional value, or are the last in line to get food.
"This, coupled with poverty and illiteracy, is responsible for the prevalence of undernourishment among women and children," said Halima al-Maqtari, a nutrition specialist working with the local NGO Charitable Society for Social Welfare in Aden.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions