A post by Issakha Diop, who is responding to the crisis in the Horn of Africa on behalf of Helen Keller International.
I am currently stationed in northeastern Kenya (260 miles northeast of Nairobi and 46 miles west of Somalia) at Dadaab, the largest refugee camp in the world. It was designed to provide temporary shelter for the 90,000 people fleeing from Somalia’s civil war in early 1990. As the war, drought, and insecurity continued in Somalia, the three camps in Dadaab – Ifo, Hagadera and Dagahaley – became home for over 450,000 people.
Today, 1,000 to 1,500 new people arrive each day because of the current drought and food crisis in East Africa.
Little Abdulay Sahal Mohamed from Somalia arrived with his family five days ago. His entire family – his parents and six other siblings – walked for 21 days before reaching a reception point at the Kenya/Somalia border to be transported to Dadaab by UNHCR.
I can tell just by just looking at Abdulay that he suffers from severe acute malnutrition. He’s three, but weighs only 6.1 kg (13.4 pounds); his arms are very thin, measuring 9.2 cm. His father, however, considers him “very lucky”; two of his younger siblings died during their journey from starvation.
Abdulay is being treated at the Ifo Refugee Hospital at an inpatient care unit managed by the German Development Organization (GIZ). Since Abdulay cannot take food orally, he is on nasogastric tube. His condition is improving and he could be referred to outpatient care soon.
At the Ifo Refugee Camp, another 3,000 children under five years old are severely malnourished, with more arriving every day. GIZ is one of several agencies providing a package of preventive and curative services, including Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition.
Severely acutely malnourished children who have poor appetites and/or medical complications are referred to inpatient care at the Ifo Refugee hospital. There, they receive medical treatment and nutritional care such as therapeutic milks or the peanut-based Plumpy’Nut. The hospital has 12 beds, but over 80 children currently need help. The inpatient unit is overcrowded, the staff is overwhelmed, and the patients are very, very sick. Although care is provided 24 hours a day, the mortality rate is heart-breakingly high, with as many as four children dying every day.
Severely acutely malnourished children with a good appetite and without any medical complications are treated as outpatients and given Plumpy’Nut at health posts. The outpatient caseload is also very high, with 250-300 children every week needing assistance. When children are admitted, their anthropometric measurements are taken, their hands and faces are washed, they are given an appetite test, and their caregivers receive health and nutrition education. Then they are sent home.
When I arrived at Dadaab I was totally unprepared to hear from so many people who have completely lost hope and to see how many children are suffering, including orphans who desperately walk around the camp looking for help while they wait for their UNHCR registration. I am here on behalf of Helen Keller International to ensure organizations like GIZ and UNICEF are able to appropriately treat children with severe malnutrition and that children like Abdulay recover from the horrors of malnutrition.
Living conditions in the camps are also harsh; food, water, and shelter are scarce, all of which contributes to the further deterioration of nutritional status, especially for children under the age of five. The drought is not expected to end before late 2012 and the war in Somalia continues.
There are systems in place, but resources are extremely stretched. All aid agencies, including HKI, are urgently looking for additional support to ensure that their life-saving interventions can continue – and more lives like Abdulay’s can be saved.