Accessibility links

Breaking News

Severe Malnutrition Among Indicators Leading to Famine

Relief experts say the Horn of Africa is showing signs of acute food insecurity, including the sale of family assets like livestock for survival and migration in search of food. There’s also a growing number of people suffering from malnutrition. Yet, they say humanitarian interventions are keeping the situations from reaching famine levels. From Washington, William Eagle reports.

Health worker Margaret Aguirre was alarmed at the sight of the little boy. His mother, named Adena, had brought the severely malnourished seven-year-old to the therapeutic feeding center run by the International Medical Corps. The center is one of many the group has in Ethiopia’s Bolossa Sorie District in the Southern Nation Nationalities and People’s Region.

"It was quite frightening to see him ," she says, " he was skin and bones…to say his ribs were poking out is an understatement. He could barely stand, and she had to hold him. The child is tall and it was upsetting to see the child could not stand. His mother had to carry him into the clinic."

The young boy was not the only family member affected. His young brother was also suffering from malnutrition. Two of six other siblings at home had recovered.

Health experts say families like this have run out of ways to survive. Drought means no pasture for their livestock, which provide the family with milk. Some sell off livestock, tools and other family assets to buy food. Others eat seeds needed for planting or survive on foods like the false banana, or encet, which has few calories or nutrients.

By the famine stage, families and entire communities have often left in search of food.

It was a similar situation for Aine Fay, the director of the Irish NGO Concern in Ethiopia. She describes a child she met at one of her group’s feeding stations.

"He was a one-year-old (Abraham Adwiro) and weighed 4.2 kilos," she explains. "[The father], who had migrated in search of labor and the money, had not come back. In the meantime, this one-year-old had deteriorated to the point where food alone was not going to help him. We gave him both food and medicines. He needed antibiotics for an infection."

Concern is helping more than 50,000 children and mothers in Ethiopia, including thousands in the regions of Amhara in the north and in six districts of the Southern Region; Damot Woyde, Duguna Fango, Offa, Shashego, Mareko and Soro.

Many children show up at any one of the NGO’s therapeutic feeding centers with the large sores and swollen bellies of kwashiorkor, a condition linked to a lack of protein. They may also show wasting, or marasmus.

International relief agencies are working to prevent adults and children from reaching those levels.

They say over six million people in the Horn may be in need of help.

To assess food emergencies, relief experts use an indicator called the Integrated Food Security and Humanitarian Phase Classification Reference Table. developed by Food Security Analysis Unit of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

The table rates food availability in a given area with five categories, ranging from generally food secure to the two most serious – humanitarian emergencies and finally, famine. According to the table, famine includes several indicators that have not yet been met in the Horn, including two deaths for every 100,000 people. Contributing to the deaths is a daily consumption of less than 2,100 kilocalories of food, and four liters of water.

To alleviate acute malnutrition in Ethiopia, the NGO Concern is giving out packages of 8.3 kg of fortified flour and a litre of oil as supplementary food for thousands of malnourished children and pregnant mothers. Children are given high nutrition formula known as F-75 or a high protein, ready-to-eat peanut paste called plumpy nut.

Similar help is also offered at the supplementary feeding centers of the International Medical Corps, which also focuses on long-term solutions. They include efforts to fortify people against diseases that can kill thousands during food shortages. For example, the group teaches people to plant nutritious foods in their own gardens, and to provide clean water and sanitation.

Magarette Aguirre says the situation in Ethiopia is severe. But she notes that there has been an improvement in rainfall recently and says that for now, that should move some pockets of the country away from the threat of famine.