Nearly a million Afghan children under the age of five are acutely malnourished, according to a recently released UN-backed survey of war torn and US/NATO occupied Afghanistan.
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid that has streamed into the country alongside the ongoing military conflict—ongoing now for more than a decade—UN health and development officials were "shocked" to discover that the level of deprivation could be so high.
"What's shocking is that [the malnutrition statistics are] very high by global standards," Michael Keating, deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, told the Guardian. "This is the kind of malnutrition you associate with Africa and some of the most deprived parts of the world, not with an area that has received so much international attention and assistance."
As the Guardian notes: "The Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) found 29.5% of children are suffering from acute malnutrition there. A level of more than 30% among young children is considered one sign of a famine."
"The numbers are just too serious to ignore," said Aidan O'Leary, head of the UN office that co-ordinates the humanitarian response to crises in Afghanistan. "It's very clear that the nutrition response as a whole has to be ramped up." He added: "This is not a one-off survey, this is a global survey conducted in conjunction with the central statistics office."
Last week, a coalition of international aid organizations also expressed "grave concern" over how little attention is being paid to address the growing humanitarian and health needs of the country.
According to the UN, Afghanistan ranks in the bottom 10 per cent of the Human Development Index. More than one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. One in every two children under five is chronically malnourished. To add to that, so far in 2012, about 300 natural disasters have struck the country affecting more than 200,000 people. Up to 600,000 people are internally displaced and 5.7 million Afghan refugees have returned home since 2002.
The Guardian's Emma Graham-Harrison reports from Afghanistan:
On a paediatric ward at Mirwais hospital in Kandahar city children admitted for therapeutic feeding were visibly wasted, with saggy skin, protruding bones and no energy; at least one had the disease kwashiorkor, caused by lack of protein.
On a recent visit the hospital was packed with desperate mothers such as Fatima, who had travelled from the violent Helmand district of Sangin to seek help for her 18-month-old son, Saddam. At 4.4kg, he weighed the same as some newborns in the UK, and lay listlessly on a greying bedsheet he shared with another patient, his older sister and three women.
Poverty has left Fatima helpless in the face of her son's suffering. "I cannot produce mother's milk, but we are not able to buy food or powdered milk," she said. "My youngest child died from this."
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