UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Child malnutrition increasing in south
BASRA, 6 May 2004 (IRIN) - More than a decade of UN sanctions and various wars has exposed Iraqi children to a variety of health threats. One of the most neglected areas during Saddam Hussein's rule was the predominately Shi'ite south.
Basic amenities were hard to come by in the city of Basra, and with the added problem of contaminated water the number of malnourished children there has greatly increased. The south was the epicentre of the uprising against Saddam, following the first Gulf War in 1991.
The Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) at Basra's general hospital was recently renovated by the Save the Children NGO in order to encourage women to bring their children for treatment.
The centre is the first of its kind in the city. "This is one of our main projects in Basra. The city has 76 primary health-care centres (PHCs). We chose 14 of them in the most populated neighbourhoods in order to rebuild the Nutritional Growth Monitoring Centres (NGMCs) that were destroyed in the latest war," Safinaz al-Taher, a nutritionist who works for Save the Children in Basra, told IRIN.
The NGO is building health centres and hospitals in order to care for and support children and their mothers. It is also training doctors and health workers to properly treat malnourished children. Moreover, it is providing medical supplies to hospitals and health care centres and distributing high protein biscuits.
The programme aims to prevent malnutrition among children under the age of five in order to minimise infant mortality and child morbidity rates. According to World Health Organization statistics, infant mortality in 2002 was 108 per 1,000 and child mortality for under fives was 131 per 1,000.
A 2003 UNICEF rapid nutrition assessment, which was confined to Baghdad, showed that 7.7 percent of children under the age of five were suffering from acute malnutrition, compared to 2002's figure of 4 percent.
Breast-feeding programmes are also being reactivated with the establishment of nutritional and growth monitoring centres at the PHCs. "By promoting and encouraging the breast-feeding programme, we would also like to extend it to include the three governorates of Dhi Qar, al-Muthanna and Maysan. We also want to encourage family planning so that mothers can space out their children and alleviate the stress of [caring for] too many children under the age of five," she added.
Sawsan Eissa, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Basra and a doctor at the centre, said that almost 200 cases of malnutrition had been treated since the centre officially opened last January. She told IRIN that malnutrition was caused by bottle feeding, infectious diseases and a lack of clean water. It is also a primary cause of diarrhoea and the
major killer of children under the age of five.
Furthermore, the current economic situation did not permit families to supplement their rations with foods high in protein, she noted. Many families do not have enough money to purchase meat, fish or eggs, as unemployment is high. There is also a lack of education within the family
about how to prepare healthy meals. Because the wars have been particularly devastating to the elderly, many young women cannot learn from their own mothers and so are not aware of how to prepare balanced, healthy meals for their families.
Dr Eissa noted that the UN sanctions imposed following Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1991 also compounded the problem. Some 60 percent of the Iraqi population is dependant on food aid, which is insufficient to sustain the entire family. Rations consist of fixed amounts of sugar, oil, flour, rice and occasionally milk, but these quantities are inadequate for healthy diets.
Cases of severe malnutrition are common, she said, citing the case of a two year-old boy who had lost weight because he lost the swelling in his body, caused by malnutrition, during the first week of undergoing the programme. "He was severely malnourished and near death. He could not sit up and was crying most of the time because of his illness. He received therapeutic supplements and high protein biscuits which enabled him to grow. He is now able to sit up by himself," she explained. However, she pointed out that he would still be unable to eat a healthy diet. "His family rarely eats meat, fish or vegetables."
Staff at the centre carry out follow-up examinations and home visits since many of the mothers cannot afford to leave their jobs to come to the centre.
Themes: (IRIN) Children, (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Food Security, (IRIN) Health & Nutrition, (IRIN) Human Rights
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