Health

UNICEF warns of staggering child malnutrition in Afghanistan

By Najibullah

A malnourished child receives treatment at the Mirwais hospital in Kandahar last September 27. At the overcrowded hospital, the few remaining doctors and nurses tried urgently to treat skeletal babies and malnourished children packed side by side on beds. [Bulent Kilic/AFP]

A malnourished child receives treatment at the Mirwais hospital in Kandahar last September 27. At the overcrowded hospital, the few remaining doctors and nurses tried urgently to treat skeletal babies and malnourished children packed side by side on beds. [Bulent Kilic/AFP]

KABUL -- The number of children suffering from severe malnutrition has increased to an unprecedented level in Afghanistan from extreme poverty and unemployment, international aid agencies warn.

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the agency treated 70,000 malnourished children in August and 46,000 in July.

"My heart drops every month when I see the total number of severe [sic] malnourished children in Afghanistan," Melanie Galvin, chief of nutrition for UNICEF Afghanistan, tweeted September 6.

UNICEF is reaching more malnourished children than ever before, she said.

A staff member prepares milk formula for patients in the malnutrition ward at the Boost Hospital, run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, on July 21. [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

A staff member prepares milk formula for patients in the malnutrition ward at the Boost Hospital, run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, on July 21. [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

The numbers are staggering compared to last year.

In June 2021, UNICEF treated 30,000 children for severe acute malnutrition in Afghanistan, but in June 2022, about 57,000 children received treatment -- a 90% increase, Galvin said in early August.

Between August 2021 and the end of August 2022, UNICEF Afghanistan treated a total of 458,000 children for severe malnutrition.

"We are concerned that one million children are suffering severe acute malnutrition this year and without immediate treatment, they could lose their lives," said Samantha Mort, spokesperson for UNICEF Afghanistan.

"While the economy is on the brink of collapse, unemployment is high, disasters such as earthquakes, droughts and floods destroy livelihoods, and the majority of the population live under the poverty line, and families struggle to feed their children," she said.

About 18.9 million people, or almost half of Afghanistan's population, will face severe food insecurity between June and November 2022, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification.

According to the World Food Programme's June report, 92% of Afghans cannot find sufficient food, while households spend 90% of their income on food.

Inadequate nutrition

Fatima, the mother of a two-year-old who is hospitalised in Kabul, said her daughter might have died without treatment.

"My husband had a small store but had to close it since there was no business and he lost money," she said.

"My husband now works as a daily labourer, and since he makes very little money, [breakfast, lunch and dinner] are usually tea and dry bread," she said.

"Doctors said that my child is malnourished due to lack of proper food."

Jan Mohammad, 30, a resident of Faryab province, brought his son to a private hospital in Kabul to treat his malnutrition.

"The doctor told me that my son might die unless I hospitalise him and start his treatment," he said.

"If the acute malnutrition is severe and the patients have symptoms such as shock, they will be hospitalised," said Hamayoun Ludin, a doctor in Kabul.

"But if the acute malnutrition is severe without symptoms, then they are asked to make weekly visits, and mothers are provided with free food supplied to clinics and hospitals by UNICEF," he said.

Barriers to treatment include limited hospital facilities in the provinces and many families' inability to afford transportation costs, Ludin said. Families sometimes act slowly to seek treatment because they lack of awareness of the symptoms of malnutrition.

Rescue efforts

UNICEF held the largest humanitarian assistance call in the organisation's history last December, which raised $2 billion in pledges, but the organisation has received only 40% of the pledges so far, said Mort, the UNICEF Afghanistan official.

"We have avoided a serious crisis ... in some parts of the country since we accelerated our efforts to identify, stop and treat acute malnutrition," she said.

Identifying children most in need is key, Mort said. In June alone, UNICEF identified almost 1.2 million children aged 6 months to under 5 years.

"The identification was done by both mobile health and nutrition teams and 2,390 health clinics across the country," she said.

UNICEF has trained 6,000 health workers in the management of severe malnutrition and distributed nutritious food to millions of children in schools in co-ordination with other UN agencies such as the World Food Programme, Mort said.

It has supported 171 mobile teams to help children across all 34 provinces, she added.

In the first half of 2022, UNICEF distributed cash assistance to 730,000 Afghans, and plans to distribute another $208 million to more than a million Afghans by the end of the calendar year, she said.

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Taliban's governor for Nangarhar and some other officials visited today the place in Spinghar district in this province, where the United States dropped a dangerous bomb known as the "Mother of Bombs" against the ISIS group. Quoting local people, the press office of the Taliban's governor for Nangarhar says, "due to the use of bombs, not only houses were destroyed and people became refugees, but also, various types of diseases have occurred to the surrounding people, and new children are born with health problems. Taliban quoted the residents saying that no agricultural products and livestock are grown in this area, and people suffer for a long time. The American government and people should pay attention to these people and compensate them. In April 2017, the United States of America announced the dropping of its dangerous bomb in the Spinghar district and claimed to have killed nearly a hundred ISIS militants. The people of the said area had already reported the disability of newborn children due to this incident.

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These problems won't be solved until a legitimate and accountable government is established in Afghanistan. Afghans also won't be released from the need for foreign NGOs; however, how long will these NGOs support the people? How long will donors fund them? In other countries, the governments bear these responsibilities, and the NGOs have very minor obligations. Whereas in Afghanistan, it is opposite. What the government should do is done by the NGOs, and this situation must end. By interacting with the international community, the Taliban must urgently find a permanent solution for the economic issues of the Afghan people; otherwise, people will die of hunger.

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Children are malnourished, and adults are mentally challenged. Most of the country's youth are depressed. Some of them have gone crazy because of too many thoughts. Incidents have also been reported due to mental illness; in many areas, one family member beats another member and even kills them. A father is angry with his son, a brother is angry with his brother, and a mother is angry with her children. It's just a challenging situation that people are going through.

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