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Yemen: Providing health care to children on the brink of starvation
Even before the current crisis in Yemen, the country faced one of the highest rates of child malnutrition in the world, with more than one million children suffering from acute malnutrition. Almost 20 months into the ongoing conflict, shortages of food, medicine and basic supplies are placing millions of people on the brink of starvation.
Today, more than 4 million people in Yemen are acutely malnourished, including 2 million children. One of the leading causes of civilian deaths in Yemen’s conflict is not trauma injuries, but mothers and children dying due to lack of routine health services. According to the World Food Programme, 10 out of the country’s 22 governorates are classified as reaching emergency levels, one step from famine levels.
Almost 462,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition and at risk of life-threatening complications such as respiratory infections or organ failure. If not immediately treated, these symptoms can reach life-threatening levels or have serious short and long-term consequences on their physical and intellectual growth. With less than 40% of all children in Yemen immunized, those who suffer from malnutrition are also more vulnerable to infectious diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and measles.
As food restrictions continue and health services collapse, mortality rates among Yemeni children are also expected to increase. A recent survey by WHO revealed that 55% of all health facilities in 16 priority governorates in Yemen are closed or partially functioning. Child health and nutrition services are fully available in only 40% of facilities.
Despite being only 24% funded under the 2016 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan, WHO’s response to the health needs of malnourished children remains a key priority.
WHO-supported Therapeutic Feeding Centres in 11 governorates provide severely malnourished children with full treatment, medicines and milk at no cost. The centres also conduct health education sessions for family members attending the facility. Since August 2015, these centres have treated more than 2,700 children. Additionally, 11 mobile nutrition teams supported by WHO continue to conduct integrated outreach activities, offering primary health care and nutrition services.
In September, a high-level meeting took place in New York focusing on food security, nutrition and health in Yemen. The event, co-chaired by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), was held with the aim of finding concrete measures to improve the humanitarian response, and highlighting the need for additional funding for the health cluster. Pledges for additional funding for Yemen totaling almost US$ 100 million were made by Canada, the European Union, Germany, Japan, Norway, Spain, Switzerland, the United States and the World Bank. However, while specific pledges were made for food security and nutrition, no specific allocations were made for the health cluster.
Until a political solution is found to resolve the current, tragic humanitarian situation in Yemen, it is imperative that the work of WHO and health partners continues, unimpeded by funding restrictions. The country’s economic crisis has further aggravated the situation, negatively affecting both the national health budget and the ability of Yemenis to pay for health services. It is only through continued and sustained support from donors to the health response, providing unmarked funding that can be used to cover critical areas as needed, that more children can be reached and treated before it is too late.