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Ethiopia: Reclaiming Young Lives in Times of Drought

Maritu and her father in Ehtiopia by UNICEF
Maritu, two-and-a-half-years-old, and her father Sultan Lentata in Shebedino hospital stabilisation centre for severely malnourished children. Sultan says his daughter became ill due to a shortage of food. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Meklit Mersha

Hundreds of thousands of young Ethiopian lives are under constant threat from drought and food shortages. The good news, however, is that efforts to detect child malnutrition and provide treatment are bearing fruit. With the support of EU humanitarian aid and other donors, UNICEF is helping Ethiopia’s health system improve malnutrition screening and care. From January to October 2016, during the height of the El Niño drought, 272 165 children were treated for severe acute malnutrition. Maritu and Wondimu are two of the children who, for now, have won the fight against malnutrition.

By Bethlehem Kiros, UNICEF @UNICEF

Looking drowsy and barely active for a two-and-a-half-year-old, Maritu is sitting on a hospital bed next to her father, Sultan Lentata. Two days ago she was admitted to the Shebedino hospital stabilisation centre due to oedema caused by severe acute malnutrition. Sultan rushed his daughter to the health post in his kebele (sub-district) when her feet and facial swelling and vomiting became worse. The health extension workers at the health post referred his daughter to the hospital as she needed immediate attention. Maritu received treatment for malnutrition before and recovered well, however she relapsed after a few months. Sultan admits he knows why.

"The extension workers told us how to feed her after she was discharged but we did not have the means to give her what she needed,” he says.  Referring to himself as a poor farmer, he says the recent drought brought calamity on his household. “To begin with, I do not have much land and the corn I planted was destroyed by the flood and hail that came after the drought. So there was not much to eat at home.”

Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR) is among the six regions that have been particularly affected by the recent El Niño drought and flooding, with 71 out of 137 districts in the region classified as requiring an urgent humanitarian response. UNICEF Ethiopia has continued its support to the government of Ethiopia for the strengthening of a community-based management of acute malnutrition.

Through the provision of ready-to-use therapeutic food at health posts, therapeutic milks and essential drugs, a high number of severely malnourished children are being treated in the region. Shebedino hospital is among the 286 health centres and hospitals with a stabilisation centre for the severely malnourished with medical complications. But the majority of malnutrition cases are now treated as outpatients at health centres and health posts.

Though it has only been a couple of days, Sultan is pleased with his daughter’s progress, “She can now take the milk they give her without throwing up. I do not want any of my children to go through this again. Once she is discharged from here, I have to do my best to provide for her so that she can grow up healthy.”

Tigist and her son in Ethiopia by UNICEF

Tigist Angata with her firstborn, eight-month-old Wondimu, who was treated for severe acute malnutrition and was discharged after he gained one kg. UNICEF Ethiopia/2016/Meklit

Tigist Angata is another parent grateful for the treatment her firstborn son, Wondimu, received. “I had almost given up because he was very small and I did not have enough milk to nurse him,” she recounts.  At six months old, Wondimu was referred to the stabilisation centre in Shebedino hospital. He was only 3.5 kg at the time, approximately the size of a newborn. Upon returning home, he ate therapeutic food for a month and was discharged when he reached a healthier weight of 4.4 kg.

“He ate so well, which made me realise how much my son was food deprived,” says Tigist. She now tries her best to prepare appropriate food for him at home, but Wondimu has not gained any more weight. Her family depends on what her husband earns working on the farms of others. Due to the drought, he has not been able to work much since last year, which has caused a serious food shortage.

Despite this, Tigist feels the situation is better than what it used to be when her son was sick. “I was very distressed at the time because I was sick and I had little hope for him. But the therapeutic milk and food have brought him back to life and I am very happy and thankful for that,” she says. Her hope is for Wondimu to grow strong, become educated and find a better life than her and her husband’s.

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