Malnutrition grows among Syrian refugee children

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In this Tuesday, March 11, 2014 photo, Mervat, 31, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press as she holds her 9-month-old daughter Shurouk inside their tent camp for Syrian refugees camp in Kab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Trapped in her northern Syrian village by fighting, Mervat watched her newborn baby progressively shrink. Her daughter’s dark eyes seemed to grow bigger as her face grew more skeletal. Finally, Mervat escaped to neighboring Lebanon, and a nurse told her the girl was starving. Such stark malnutrition was rare in Syria in the past, but as the country’s conflict enters its fourth year, international aid workers fear malnutrition is rising among children in Syria and among refugees amid the collapse in the health care system. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

In this Tuesday, March 11, 2014 photo, Mervat, 31, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press as she holds her 9-month-old daughter Shurouk inside their tent camp for Syrian refugees camp in Kab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Trapped in her northern Syrian village by fighting, Mervat watched her newborn baby progressively shrink. Her daughter’s dark eyes seemed to grow bigger as her face grew more skeletal. Finally, Mervat escaped to neighboring Lebanon, and a nurse told her the girl was starving. Such stark malnutrition was rare in Syria in the past, but as the country’s conflict enters its fourth year, international aid workers fear malnutrition is rising among children in Syria and among refugees amid the collapse in the health care system. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

In this Tuesday, March. 11, 2014 photo, aid workers measure the upper arm circumference, to check for signs of malnutrition in one year-old Syrian refugee Mahmoud al-Khatar at a medical clinic in the town of Kab Elias in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Three years after Syria’s uprising began to overthrow President Bashar Assad, spiraling into a war that has killed over 140,000 people and sending over 2.5 million people fleeing into neighboring countries, aid workers say are now seeing malnutrition emerge, once a barely known scourge in Syrian society. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

In this Tuesday, March 11, 2014 photo, two aid workers measure one year-old Syrian refugee Jawad al-Abbas at a medical clinic in the town of Kab Elias in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Three years after Syria’s uprising began to overthrow President Bashar Assad, spiraling into a war that has killed over 140,000 people and sending over 2.5 million people fleeing into neighboring countries, aid workers say are now seeing malnutrition emerge, once a barely known scourge in Syrian society. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

In this Tuesday, March 11, 2014 photo, Mervat, 31, stands outside of her tent as she holds her 9-month-old daughter Shurouk, at camp for Syrian refugees camp in Kab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Trapped in her northern Syrian village by fighting, Mervat watched her newborn baby progressively shrink. Her daughter’s dark eyes seemed to grow bigger as her face grew more skeletal. Finally, Mervat escaped to neighboring Lebanon, and a nurse told her the girl was starving. Such stark malnutrition was rare in Syria in the past, but as the country’s conflict enters its fourth year, international aid workers fear malnutrition is rising among children in Syria and among refugees amid the collapse in the health care system.(AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

In this Tuesday, March 11, 2014 photo, Syrian refugee Mohammed Sammor, 3, receives vaccination against polio from Dr. Mohammed Anboushi at a medical clinic in the town of Kab Elias in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Three years after Syria’s uprising began to overthrow President Bashar Assad, spiraling into a war that has killed over 140,000 people and sending over 2.5 million people fleeing into neighboring countries, aid workers say are now seeing malnutrition emerge, once a barely known scourge in Syrian society. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

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KAB ELIAS, Lebanon (AP) — Trapped in her northern Syrian village by fighting, Mervat watched her newborn baby progressively shrink. Her daughter’s dark eyes seemed to grow bigger as her face grew more skeletal. Finally, Mervat escaped to neighboring Lebanon, and a nurse told her the girl was starving.

The news devastated her. “They had to hold me when they told me. I wept,” the 31-year-old mother said, speaking in the rickety, informal tent camp where she now lives with her husband in the eastern Lebanese town of Kab Elias.

Her daughter Shurouk has been undergoing treatment the past three months and remains a wispy thing. The 9-month-old weighs 7 pounds (3.2 kilos) — though she’s become more smiley and gregarious. Mervat spoke on condition she be identified only by her first name, fearing problems for her family in Syria.

Her case underscored how dramatically Syrian society has unraveled from a conflict that this weekend enters its fourth year. Such stark starvation was once rare in Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s autocratic state ran a health system that provided nearly free care.

That system, along with most other state institutions, has been shattered in many parts of the country where the fighting between Assad’s forces and the rebels trying to overthrow him is raging hardest. The war has killed more than 140,000 people and has driven nearly a third of the population of 23 million from their homes — including 4.2 million who remain inside Syria and 2.5 million who have fled into neighboring countries. Nearly half those displaced by the war are children.

Now aid workers believe starvation cases are increasing in besieged areas of Syria and malnutrition is spreading among the poorest Syrian refugees.

Before the conflict, doctors inside Syria would see fewer than one case a month of a child with life-threatening malnutrition, now they tell UNICEF they encounter 10 or more a week, said Juliette Touma, a Middle East regional spokesperson for the U.N. children’s agency.

In Lebanon, malnutrition grew from 4.4 percent in 2012 to 5.9 percent of Syrian refugee children, according to a recent

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