1.1 million Afghan children under 5 could be severely malnourished this year, UN says

ISLAMABAD (AP) — In Afghanistan, 1.1 million children under the age of 5 will likely face the most severe form of malnutrition this year, according to the UN, as growing numbers of starving and dying are brought to hospital wards.

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The UN and other aid agencies averted starvation after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan last year by rolling out a massive emergency aid program that fed millions of people.

But they are struggling to keep pace with ever-worsening conditions. Poverty is skyrocketing and more and more Afghans are in need of aid, world food prices are rising due to the war in Ukraine and the promises of international funding so far do not materialize, according to an assessment report published this month.

As a result, vulnerable people are victims, including children but also mothers who struggle to feed themselves with their families.

Nazia said she had lost four children to malnutrition – two daughters and two sons under the age of 2. “All four died because of financial problems and poverty,” Nazia, 30, said. When her children fell ill, she had no money to treat them.

Nazia spoke to The Associated Press at Charakar hospital in the northern province of Parwan, where she and her 7-month-old daughter were both being treated for malnutrition. Her husband is a day laborer but is also a drug addict and rarely brings in an income, she said. Like many Afghans, she only uses one name.

UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, said 1.1 million children this year are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition, also known as severe wasting, nearly double the number in 2018 and against just under a million last year.

According to UNICEF, severe wasting is the deadliest type of malnutrition, in which food is so lacking that a child’s immune system is compromised. They become vulnerable to multiple bouts of illness and eventually become so weak that they cannot absorb nutrients.

The number of children under 5 admitted to health facilities with severe acute malnutrition has steadily increased, from 16,000 in March 2020 to 18,000 in March 2021 and then to 28,000 in March 2022 , UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan Mohamed Ag Ayoya wrote in a tweet last week.

Hit by one of its worst droughts in decades and torn apart by years of war, Afghanistan was already facing a food emergency, but the Taliban takeover in August plunged the country into crisis. Many development agencies pulled out and international sanctions cut billions of dollars from government finances, collapsing the economy.

Millions of people have been pushed into poverty, struggling to feed their families. At the end of last year, half of the population of around 38 million people lived below the poverty line, according to UN figures. As the economy continues to slump and prices rise, this could reach 97% of the population this year by mid-2022, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Due to poverty, “mothers are not properly nourished during pregnancy and cannot eat properly after birth,” said Mohammad Sharif, a doctor at Charakar Hospital.

At Mirwais Hospital in the southern province of Kandahar, 1,100 malnourished children have been admitted in the past six months, 30 of whom have died, said Dr Mohammad Sediq, head of the pediatric ward.

One mother, Kobra, said she was unable to breastfeed her 6-month-old child. “He is constantly losing weight and crying a lot, I know it’s because of hunger, but I can’t do anything about it,” she said.

At her home in a poor area of ​​Kandahar City, Jamila said her 8-month-old son died last month after being diagnosed with severe malnutrition. If she does not receive help, she fears for her four other children, she says.

“The government didn’t help us at all, nobody asked us if we were hungry or if we had something to eat or not,” she said.

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UN agencies launched a massive and accelerated aid program after the Taliban took power, accelerating to such an extent that they are now providing food aid to 38% of the population.

The number of people facing acute food insecurity has fallen slightly from 22.8 million at the end of last year to 19.7 million currently, according to a report published in May by the IPC, a partnership between United Nations and other agencies that assess food security. From June to November this year, that number is expected to drop a little further, to 18.9 million, IPC said.

But these small reductions “are far from indicating a positive trend”, he warned.

The decrease was small compared to the scale of the aid, he said. Moreover, deteriorating conditions threaten to overwhelm the effort. He pointed to the continuing collapse of the economy, rising food and fuel prices and supply disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine, and “unprecedented inflation” in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, lack of funding threatens the reach of aid. The proportion of the population receiving food aid could drop to just 8% in the next six months, as so far only $601 million of the required $4.4 billion has been received from the global community, said the IPC. Just over $2 billion has been pledged.

Melanie Galvin, head of UNICEF’s nutrition program in Afghanistan, said the figure of 1.1 million children came from the agency’s annual assessment, conducted last fall and based on expected conditions. .

“Every year, all the factors related to malnutrition keep increasing,” she told the AP. It just goes up and up in terms of the deteriorating situation.

Drought has been the main driver of food insecurity, she said, compounded by growing poverty, lack of access to clean water and medical care, the need for greater vaccination against diseases like measles that strike malnourished children.

The good news is that agencies now have access nationwide, she said. UNICEF has opened around 1,000 treatment sites in remote locations where parents can bring their malnourished children rather than having to walk to major urban centres.

But an emergency response is not sustainable in the longer term, she said. “We need all of these factors in the external environment to improve.”

Keath reported from Cairo.


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