Nearly 2.2 million children in the war-ravaged country are acutely malnourished and require urgent care. Poverty and lack of medical support are pushing them to fatal conditions.
Hodeida, Yemen — Welaya Ahmed Hasan is three. She is one of more than two million children in Yemen suffering from acute malnutrition. But she’s luckier than others. Her parents were able to take her to al-Thawra hospital in al-Hodeida district.
Inside the department of nutrition at al-Thawra lie 10 malnourished children waiting to receive treatment. Some of them, including Welaya, suffer from burn marks in their body, a side effect indicating the advanced stage of the disease.
The malnourished children are in agonising pain much of the time. Their piercing cries are a result of malnutrition. Their mothers nurse them helplessly, unable to take any action. They sit together to talk about the suffering of their children. In this, they find some solace.
The doctors say the children can survive if they are treated on time. But many parents are unable to afford the treatment.
"Last month, we noticed that Welaya could not eat anything and started suffering from severe pain, so we brought her to the hospital and we had no money with us, but some people lent us money to pay for medicines," Welaya's mother Kateba told TRT World.
Nearly 2.2 million children in Yemen are acutely malnourished and require urgent care. At least 462,000 children suffer from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM), a drastic increase of almost 200 percent since 2014.
An additional 1.7 million children suffer from Moderate Acute Malnutrition, UNICEF said in December 2016.
Welaya's father works as a street sweeper in Hodeida city. He hasn’t received his salary since April 2015. Instead, he depends on local charity. A group of traders offer him some food, which he shares with his wife and eight children.
The World Bank estimates that the poverty rate has doubled to 62 percent of Yemen’s 27 million people, with public sector salaries paid only irregularly.
Nowadays Welaya's father visits traders and asks them to lend him some money. He has already borrowed $400 (YR100,000), an amount he cannot pay back in his current circumstances. He does odd jobs and earns around $60 (YR15,000) per month.
Kateba added: "My husband cannot borrow more money, so if we don’t get outside help, we cannot remain in the hospital. We will bring Welaya home."
Welaya needs to stay in the hospital for two more months. Her treatment costs $20 (YR5,000) per day. This is a difficult burden to bear for people with little to no money. And the choices made are often between food for their children and hospital treatment.
"We cannot buy food for our children, and usually they sleep hungry, so it is difficult to pay YR5,000 per day. The hospital helps us with milk and vitamins but we still need to buy other medicines."
Out of 20 million people in Yemen who are in need of humanitarian aid, 9.8 million are in acute need of assistance. An estimated 17 million people—60 per cent of the total population—are on the brink of starvation, while a staggering seven million people do not know when and how their next meal will come.
Kateba stated that they cannot provide their children with the required food. She points to Welaya’s other siblings who also suffer from malnutrition. They have not reached the advanced stage yet.
"When we feel that a child suffers from emaciation, we try to provide them with food, but that does not help as doctors told us that the lack of food is the main reason of the disease but it is not the cure,” Kateba added.
The war aggravates the situation
In the most seriously affected governorates of Taiz and Hodeida, Save the Children estimates that a staggering 10,000 children are predicted to die this year in each region due to hunger.
Tahani Mohammed is 18 months old. She is the youngest of five siblings living in al-Hodeida's al-Garahi district. Her father is a jobless man who cannot provide her with milk.
Her mother Ibtesam told TRT World: "When the war broke out, my husband lost his job as a farmer because of the increase in the price of fuel and now he cannot provide us with food."
"When I gave birth to Tahani, I could not breast-feed her and she was suffering from hunger most of the time. My husband could not buy milk for her, so she now suffers from acute malnutrition."
Ibtesam brought her daughter to al-Thawra hospital. Like so many, she does not have enough money for treatment but she trusts that philanthropists or aid organisations will help.
She confirmed that most of the malnourished children live on the outskirts of al-Hodeida. They cannot pay for transportation and medicine, so no one helps them.
"During the last two and half years, many people lost their jobs, so there are many malnourished children living on the outskirts of al-Hodeida like al-Garahi and al-Tohaita and no one helps them," Ibtesam added.
The recent blockade of al-Hodeida seaport aggravated the situation in the north. The Saudi-led coalition only last month lifted the blockade of the seaport to allow humanitarian aid through.
A continuing blockade by the Saudi-led coalition on the country’s northern ports is likely to increase the death toll further. At least 50,000 children are estimated to die this year, according to Save the Children’s recent statement.
Almost 400,000 children will need treatment for severe acute malnutrition in Yemen this year—but aid agencies are struggling to reach them all amid fund deficits, the largest cholera outbreak in modern history and the Saudi obstruction to supplies of food and aid, Save the Children said.
"Even before this latest blockade, based on this calculation, Yemen would expect to see about 50,000 malnourished children under the age of five die from hunger or disease this year—an average of 130 a day, or one child every ten minutes", Save the Children said in November.
Suffering at home
The manager of the nutrition department at al-Thawra hospital in al-Hodeida, Dr. Salima Abdullah Saeed confirmed that more cases arrived at the hospital during the last two and half years. The war has pushed a large number of people into desperate poverty, escalating hunger-related diseases.
"The department consists of 12 beds and sometimes we receive 35 cases, so we resort to using beds from other departments," Saeed said. "The main reason for malnutrition is poverty as many breadwinners lost their jobs and they cannot provide their families with enough food."
Most of the children are left ailing in their homes. Whatever cases come to the hospital, they are in the advanced stages of malnutrition.
"The disease hits poor families the most, so they cannot afford transportation. They end up seeing their children suffer and die in their houses," Saeed said.
Less than a third of the country’s population has access to medical care. And less than half of health facilities are functional. Health workers have not been paid their wages for months and aid agencies are struggling to bring in life-saving supplies because of the political deadlock between the warring parties, according to UNICEF.
Some organizations provide hospitals with milk and vitamins, so the malnourished children get them for free. They still need to buy some medicines from outside the hospital which often they are unable to do, according to Saeed.
When cholera broke out in Yemen, international aid organizations set up medical camps, where thousands of children were treated. Many of them were starving and they did not receive treatment for malnutrition.
Saeed said that many malnourished children develop burn marks on their bodies and the medicines to treat them are not available for free.
"No one denies the role of organizations in helping malnourished people but I hope that organizations also provide patients with the medicines for scorches and burns," she said.
Kateba, the mother of the malnourished child Welaya, echoed a similar sentiment.
"The organizations help us obtain some of the medicines, but we can't afford to buy other expensive drugs," Kateba said. "We need support with other medications. That's the only way our children can survive."
With additional reporting by Sameer Sultan