In Yemen, malnutrition prevails as assistance remains low
UNICEF reports that 500,000 Yemeni children are likely to die in the coming months if immediate action isn’t taken.
Yemen has the second highest stunt rate in the world—58 percent of children younger than 5—meaning reduced growth rates in a child’s development. Afghanistan is the first.
Yemen requires $455 million in immediate humanitarian aide to stave off the “unprecedented crisis,” and so far donors have met 43 percent of that amount, U.N. envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar said to the U.N. Security Council.
“Malnutrition is preventable. And, therefore, inaction is unconscionable,” UNICEF Regional Director Maria Calivis said. “Conflict, poverty and drought, compounded by the unrest of the previous year, the high food and fuel prices and the breakdown of social services, are putting children’s health at great risks and threatening their very survival.”
Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, is facing “crisis levels of hunger and malnutrition,” according to Dr. Akeel Dokail of Al-Sabeen Hospital in Sana’a’s therapeutic feeding center.
Just down the road from the lavish, $60 million Saleh Mosque commissioned by deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the modest, state-run Al-Sabeen Hospital treats children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM).
More Than a Statistic
One of those children, 18-month-old Rahath Ali, leans into her mother’s lap when the doctor approaches. For the past two weeks, Rahath had been poked and prodded by hospital staff. Despite Dokail’s kind eyes and warm smile, Rahath cries as he approaches.
At 3.9 kilos, Rahath was so ill when admitted that weight gain was prohibited through the first phase of treatment—any weight gain could be destabilizing and lead to death. Now, in the second phase of treatment, Rahath and her mother, 22-year-old Amina Mohamed, wait for discharge orders so Rahath can continue treatment on an outpatient basis.
“Our situation is very bad,” Rahath’s mother, who is 5 months pregnant with her second child, said. “My husband is a street cleaner and earns YR 15,000 per month (less than $70). My mother-in-law has epilepsy, so I stay at home and take care of her. Her prescriptions are very expensive, and there’s never enough money for food. Every day is a struggle.”
The family averages two meals a day, consisting of beans for breakfast and rice for lunch. Sometimes, there’s only bread and tea.
Treatment Costs Are Heavy Burden
Costs of treating complications arising from malnutrition are a heavy burden for Yemen’s poor, and any medical bills mean less money for food. Less food results in greater health issues, “a vicious cycle,” Lenna Al-Eryani, a Ministry of Health representative, said.
Although the therapeutic feeding centers are funded by UNICEF, the World Health Organization and others, it wasn’t until last week that Al-Sabeen Hospital stopped charging YR 6,700 for admission. Patients remain responsible for the costs of any tests or procedures, and families pay an average of YR 15,000, and sometimes more, for necessary medication.
Long Term Consequences
“Children under the age of five are going through a crucial process of mental and physical development,” Dr. Barry Stein, a political science professor at Michigan State University, said. Prolonged malnutrition for children under five “can have permanent impacts that can never be reversed by later good nutrition.”
According to UNICEF's report, “Tracking Progress on Child on Maternal Nutrition,” under-nutrition, particularly in children less than two years old, lowers IQs and leaves children small, tired and weak. As a result, children are left “more vulnerable to illness and infection,” Stein said.
“The result is the malnourished child will be a somewhat stunted—mentally and physically—adults … The population that survives a crisis will be less productive, thus vulnerable to more crises.”
Humanitarian Aid as Counter-Terror Strategy
Ansar Al-Shariah, the Al-Qaeda -affiliated group operating in some southern regions of Yemen, has a new weapon in its war with the West—development. It has launched an effort to “win the hearts and minds” of people in the territories it controls by “providing public services such as sewage and water,” according to a recent IRIN article.
As increased U.S. drone strikes and civilian casualties incite anger toward the U.S., Ansar Al-Sharia capitalizes on this animosity and has “made clear that international aid workers are not welcome in cities like Jaar,” Abdul-Hakeem Al-Ofairi, deputy director of Partners-Yemen in Sana’a, told IRIN.
“Their work in those areas undermines Ansar Al-Shariah’s efforts to gain the trust of the people because the international aid is directly related to the needs of the people … It touches their hearts and minds,” the article quotes Al-Ofairi as saying.
As Yemenis continue suffering from malnutrition, and the state is not providing assistance, Yemen risks losing ground to militant groups such as Ansar Al-Shariah. It also risks undermining its own interests by allowing the U.S. to conduct drone strikes that kill civilians, as Ansar Al-Shariah is known to capitalize off civilian deaths as a recruitment tool.
Food Security Support Project
The Ministry of Health, the European Union and UNICEF recently launched a 3-year project to increase food security and to reduce poverty among rural households in Yemen. Al-Eryani outlined several project goals, including educating parents on the benefits of breast-feeding until 6 months, proper nutrition, hygiene and sanitation, as well as training volunteers to assess malnutrition in specific regions.
When asked if the Ministry of Health is adequately funded to meet its goals, Al-Eryani said, “There's no such thing as an adequately funded department in Yemen.”