KENYA: Agencies seek help to stem malnutrition in refugee camps

Friday, July 6, 2007

The problems associated with high malnutrition among children younger than five should be tackled now to save lives in the Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps in northeastern Kenya, three UN agencies have warned.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN World Food Programme (WFP) and UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said children under five were registering acute malnutrition rates of 22.2 percent in Dadaab and 15.9 percent in Kakuma, according to a recent survey. The agencies said malnutrition rates above 15 percent signalled an emergency.

They urged donors to provide US$32 million to improve care for refugee children and their mothers in the camps in Kenya's arid north that host 237,000 refugees, mostly Somalis and Sudanese.

Anaemia rates, in particular, were alarming. A survey sponsored by UNHCR and the German development agency GTZ in Dadaab in June 2006 found rates of 78 percent among children under five, and 72.7 percent among women.

The camps are in a harsh environment and government policies ruling out farming, grazing or work outside the camps mean refugees are entirely dependent on aid. Renewed conflict has seen another 40,000 refugees arrive from Somalia since mid-2006.

"The malnutrition crisis that we are witnessing in the refugee camps is the cumulative effect of years of recurrent budgetary shortfalls. Year after year we are unable to fully meet refugees' needs for firewood, soap and other essential commodities," said UNHCR acting representative Eddie Gedalof.

The agencies called for a complete package of assistance to overcome chronic shortages in essential commodities such as firewood, energy-saving stoves and soap. They also called for complementary foods, supplementary feeding for children and therapeutic feeding for the dangerously malnourished.

"If refugees don't get firewood, or soap, they have to sell their general food rations to buy it," said WFP deputy country director Marian Read. "When there isn't enough food to go around, it's the children and women who suffer most."

Calling for better-staffed health facilities in the camps, the agencies said over the past year, cholera, measles, meningitis and Kenya's first cases of polio in 20 years had been recorded in the camps, further aggravating the fragile nutritional status of young children.

UNICEF-Kenya country representative, Olivia Yambi, said: "In the camps, malnutrition is associated with at least half the deaths of children under five. Even for those who recover, malnutrition curtails the entire development potential of these children."

Source: IRIN