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UNICEF: Iraq survey finds child health sliding

UNICEF: Iraq survey finds child health sliding

UNICEF finds that acute malnutrition has doubled in past year

BAGHDAD / GENEVA / NEW YORK, 14 May 2003 – Two months after the start of the Iraq war, UNICEF has called for urgent action to halt what it believes is the plummeting nutritional status of Iraqi children.

UNICEF today released troubling findings from a rapid nutrition assessment undertaken in Baghdad, which has found that acute malnutrition rates in children under five have nearly doubled since a previous survey in February 2002.

“We can assume that the situation is as bad if not much worse in other urban centres throughout Iraq,” said the UNICEF Representative in Iraq, Carel De Rooy. “We knew going into the war that Iraqi children were poorly nourished. These findings make clear that not enough is being done to turn the situation around. Instead it has gotten worse.”

The UNICEF rapid nutrition assessment was confined to Baghdad because of general insecurity throughout the country. Nevertheless, it shows that 7.7 per cent of children under age five are suffering from acute malnutrition, compared with last year’s figure of 4 per cent. Acute malnutrition signifies that a child is actually wasting away.

Rapid assessments are used by humanitarian agencies in the immediate aftermath of emergencies. Although the samples they are based on are limited, they are considered sufficiently reliable to guide an initial aid response.

UNICEF says that unsafe water from disrupted water services may be playing a significant role in the findings. Poor water quality is largely to blame for a rapid increase in cases of diarrhoea among children in recent weeks.

Speaking from Baghdad, UNICEF Health and Nutrition Officer Dr. Wisam Al-Timini said that the survey found that more than 1 in 10 children were in need of treatment for dehydration.

“This suggests exactly what we know: Poor water and sanitation leads to diarrhoea, and then to dehydration and malnutrition. These children need treatment to stop their bodies from wasting because of an inability to retain vitamins and nutrients from ordinary foods. Those severely malnourished who do not get treatment are at very high risk of dying.”

Hundreds of thousands of tons of raw sewage are pumped into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers every day. Because most Iraqis obtain their drinking water from these rivers, the water must first pass through treatment plants, of which there are more than 1,000 across Iraq.

However, looters have stripped bare many water plants, including even heavy machinery, rendering them useless. Supplies of water cleaning chemicals have been stolen or destroyed. Looters are piercing water pipes for commercial use, destroying the pressure needed to supply large urban areas. As a result, the quality of water being pumped into homes is extremely poor – leading to illness and wasting among children.

“Nearly three quarters of the children surveyed in Baghdad in the assessment had at least one bout of diarrhoea over the previous month,” said Al-Timini. “If we compare these results with earlier findings, we note that children who have generally grown over the past few years because of improved nutrition have suddenly and dramatically wasted. This coincides with war and the breakdown of social services. It’s not conclusive, but it suggests that the shift of children into the acutely malnourished category is recent.”

Two weeks ago, UNICEF warned of an approaching health crisis because of the loss of stockpiles of chlorine, and the approach of the dry season during which water-borne diseases increase in Iraq. War, the looting of hospitals, the disruption of the health system, the breakdown of water services, and a state of insecurity that has made relief deliveries difficult and has left looters largely unhindered, have all been contributing factors.

A tragic corollary to the breakdown of water services has been the increase in children being killed and wounded in the south by explosives. The shortage of fuel to boil water has led children to scavenge for firewood among ammunition crates stored in hundreds of depots.

UNICEF’s Response

UNICEF is trucking more than 2 million litres of clean water into Iraq each day, and importing supplies of chlorine gas and tablets. Community water stations have been set up at hospitals and health stations across the country, and UNICEF is collaborating with NGOs to detect and treat malnutrition in order to prevent child mortality. Supplies of therapeutic milk and high protein biscuits have been trucked and flown into the country. Teams have made emergency repairs to pumping stations, but UNICEF says there is a limit to what can be done as looting continues on a daily basis.

“We know the risks that Iraq’s children face, and we know what to do,” said De Rooy. “But we are humanitarian workers, not police. Secure aid delivery equals effective aid delivery. Weeks later, we are still calling on somebody to deliver that security.”

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