Shaida being held in hospital

Shaida*, 9 months old, is being treated for malnutrition by Save the Children's mobile health team in Balkh province. *names have been changed. Photo credit: Michal Przedlacki/ Save the Children 

Afghanistan: Number of Malnourished Children at Save the Children Clinics Doubled Since August

In December, about 40 severely malnourished children died on their way to one hospital

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (Jan. 19, 2022) – The number of dangerously malnourished children visiting Save the Children's mobile health clinics in Afghanistan has more than doubled since August, with some dying before they can get reach the hospital, the children's charity said today.

Doctors at one children's hospital in the north of the country told Save the Children staff that in December, about 40 severely malnourished children died on their way to get medical assistance.

Demand for malnutrition treatment surged as the country plunged into its worst food crisis on record. This winter, 14 million children from a total population of about 40 million are expected to face life-threatening hunger levels, and rates of malnutrition are soaring. As a result, up to one million children could be so severely malnourished that they could be at risk of dying unless they get the treatment they need.

In August, Save the Children's mobile health teams were each seeing an average of 39 malnourished children. By December, that number had climbed to above 100, according to newly released data.

Shaida*, aged nine months, was treated for malnutrition at Save the Children's mobile health clinic in Afghanistan's Balkh province. Shaida's* parents were struggling to feed their family of six and had already lost one baby, who died at four months after developing symptoms of a bad cold.

"We were under a lot of pressure because of [the economic situation] and were displaced and came here. Even this daughter of ours almost died, but with the medication that we have got from Save the Children, she thankfully survived," Shaida's* father, Rabul* explained. "My [other] daughter was smiling in my arms [one evening], and when we woke up the next morning, she was frozen and had died."

Save the Children provides treatment for children suffering from acute malnutrition and refers severely ill children to hospitals for specialist treatment. But with Afghanistan's aid-dependent healthcare system on the brink of collapse, the agency warned that many children are unable to get the specialist treatment they need.

Athena Rayburn, Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at Save the Children, said: 

"Our overwhelmed health teams are working flat out to treat sharply increasing numbers of malnourished children. With the health system, crumbling, sick and worried families have traveled nearly 50 miles to our clinics. The sight of mothers carrying painfully thin and lifeless children with wasted muscles and sagging skin has become far too common.

"Families tell us they have done everything they can – often going without meals themselves so their children can eat. Or, worse, having to give up their children because they can't afford to feed them. It's every parent's worst nightmare.

"Our teams go on home visits to provide support but say there just isn't enough food. And we have started receiving the devastating news we all dread – children are dying. The reduced healthcare services and the increasing number of malnourished children we are seeing is a direct result of the global assets freeze. The freeze of funds is choking the healthcare system. When sick children need treatment, all they find is closed doors and empty pharmacies. If a solution is not found soon, the heart-breaking reality is that children will continue to die."

The children's hospital in the northern province of Jawzjan has the capacity to hold up to 12 children with life-threatening severe malnutrition and complications. But in recent weeks, there have been up to 35 at any one time on the wards, and doctors have reported shortages of antibiotics. 

If severely malnourished children are treated in a hospital - even an overcrowded one - there is every chance they will survive. So save the Children has launched an urgent fundraising appeal to continue scaling up its response to help ensure severely ill children get the treatment they need.

A brutal wave of hunger and hardship swept Afghanistan in the wake of the conflict, economic freefall, and spiraling prices. As a result, two-thirds of the country's children need aid to survive.

In 2021, Save the Children's mobile health clinics treated more than 12,000 children for malnutrition. The aid agency is distributing cash, winter clothes, and fuel to families in some of the hardest-hit areas to help them stay warm and fed through the bitter winter.

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