|Alongside Syrian health workers, UNICEF battles varied causes of malnutrition|
AL-HASAKEH, Syrian Arab Republic, 18 August 2010 – Syria’s Al-Hasakah governorate is no more than two hours away from Euphrates.
One of the biggest challenges facing children here is an alarming rise in malnutrition perpetuated by a constant drought.
The country’s children suffer from high levels of malnutrition and many exhibit a low weight-to-height ratio – a worrying statistic.
In this region, malnutrition is caused by several factors, including the lack of rainfall – which reduces the amount and quality of food available – and a number of misconceptions related to nutrition.
But another, less common problem is the traditional practice of tea drinking among children.
“Bad habits start from the first minute of giving birth,” said Dr. Abdul Kareem Hammaadi, a local physician. “Tea leads to anaemia in small children but unfortunately [caregivers] barely respond to our advice. They need to be well educated, which requires the efforts of national and international organizations.”
UNICEF is working with the Syrian Ministry of Health to educate parents on healthy habits for their children. By using Syria’s dedicated public health teams as a conduit for better nutrition education, UNICEF is implementing short- and long-term solutions to Syria’s nutrition problems.
Operating alongside local teams, UNICEF experts assess the extent of the problem and train public health centre staff to track children’s growth and treat malnutrition.
“We started in February,” said health centre nurse Abeer Mash’a. The teams weigh children, she said, and then distribute bags of therapeutic food like Plumpy’nut, a nutrient-rich peanut paste. But aside from treating malnutrition, they also have the essential task of educating caregivers.
“Most importantly, we teach parents what food is good for the children,” said Ms. Mash’a.
In some areas, Syria is making considerable leaps towards fulfilling the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by their deadline of 2015. But the progress is uneven, often favouring accessible urban areas. In Syria, as around the world, there is increasing evidence that the global push to achieve the MDGs is leaving behind the most vulnerable and marginalized children.
Foundation for growth
Just five years ahead of the MDG deadline, high malnutrition levels in rural parts of Syria threaten to pose a considerable problem for the future of the country.
“Nutrition is actually the foundation of a child’s physical and intellectual growth and important for the economic development of a country,” said UNICEF Representative in Syria Sherazade Boualia. “We do have an issue in Syria where the level of malnutrition is alarming to a certain degree, so we’ve decided to take action in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.”
Evolving attitudes and softening tradition in favour of better nutrition is a long process. But the reduction of tea drinking among children is essential to guard against malnutrition and give children a healthy start to life.
By Rob Sixsmith