Yemen’s young children are ‘staring death in the face’

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A medical practitioner uses a measuring tape on a child suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition in Yemen (UNICEF / Almang)

Child nutrition (Early years), Childcare, Children in conflicts, Early childhood development, Education in emergencies, ​Learning through play (Early years)

Hunger, diseases and the effects of conflict are hitting the vulnerable under-fives especially hard, aid agencies are warning.

Millions of people are suffering in the appalling humanitarian crisis that has gripped Yemen – and the hardest-hit are the very young.

A child is dying every 10 minutes from “preventable causes”, including malnutrition, cholera, diphtheria and – of course – the war itself.

The most vulnerable, those children under the age of five, are being abandoned to “stare death in the face,” according to the United Nations, which said 80% of children are now “in desperate need of aid”.

Huge numbers are at serious risk of stunted growth, which could irrecoverably affect their potential to develop physically and educationally.

A child’s brain is 90% developed by the time they are five. For their brains to develop to the full potential, they need to have the proper care, protection, safety, stimulation and nourishment. Stunting occurs when a child has not had access to these in the formative years.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres yesterday called for an end to air and ground assaults in Yemen, after an escalation of violence among rebel groups who had previously fought together in the ongoing conflict. 

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Children in Yemen are living on the brink of famine and widespread malnutrition has drastically increased their risk of disease (UNICEF / Al-Karim)

A blockade on humanitarian aid getting in has caused significant shortages of critical supplies, especially food and fuel.

“The Secretary-General calls for the urgent resumption of all commercial imports, without which millions of children, women and men risk mass hunger, disease and death,” said the statement from Guterres.

The directors of the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Food Programme said in a joint statement Yemen had also been hit by the “world’s worst cholera outbreak in the midst of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. Young children are particularly vulnerable to cholera.

Urgently-needed vaccines to treat 600,000 children and protect them against diphtheria, meningitis, whooping cough, pneumonia and tuberculosis finally started getting through last week.

Geert Cappalaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: “It was our first delivery of humanitarian supplies to Sana’a airport since November 6. It is fair to say that Yemen is one of the worst places on earth to be a child.

“More than 11 million Yemeni children are today in acute need of humanitarian assistance. That’s almost every single Yemeni boy and girl.

“Yemen today is also the country with almost the highest level of malnutrition. What has happened in the last two and a half years throughout Yemen has only exacerbated what was already a very sad reality.

“Today we estimate that every 10 minutes a child in Yemen is dying from preventable diseases. The massive and unprecedented outbreak of acute watery diarrhoea and cholera this year is no surprise. The war in Yemen is sadly a war on children. Close to 5000 children have been killed or seriously injured the last two and a half years alone.”

Two million children have also had their education disrupted and hundreds of schools have been damaged or destroyed.

Two years of conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi rebels have taken a heavy toll in Yemen, causing millions of people to be displaced, malnourished and fighting deadly diseases. The number of cholera cases is expected to reach 600,000 by the end of the year.

“This is a children’s crisis,” said Bismarck Swangin, a communication specialist for UNICEF Yemen. “When you look at the number of children who are staring at death due to malnourishment, and now that is compounded by a cholera outbreak, children are not only being killed directly as a result of the conflict, but more children are at risk and could die from indirect consequences.”

Millions of children are going to bed hungry each night - they are acutely malnourished so they’re too weak to stand up. Caroline Anning, Save the Children

Caroline Anning, senior conflict and humanitarian advocacy adviser for Save the Children, said she was not surprised by the finding that 80% of children need humanitarian aid.

“It tallies with what we see on the ground,” said Anning. “The message we get is this is an off-the-scale humanitarian crisis, much bigger than what we see in Syria, much bigger than in other parts of the world, and it happens in the background almost, it doesn’t get the same amount of attention. 

“What it means for children in Yemen is that there are millions of children going to bed hungry each night. Huge numbers of children are acutely malnourished so they’re too weak to stand up. 

“We’re having mothers who are carrying their acutely malnourished children to clinics on their backs, walking for hours, because they don’t have the money to pay for transport.”

Earlier this year, international donors pledged $2.1 billion in humanitarian aid for Yemen. So far only a third of the money has come in, said the UN. 

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A child being treated for malnutrition, who is also suffering from a skin infection, eats therapeutic food as he lies on a bed (UNICEF)

Young Yemeni children are also dealing with toxic stress – when exposure to periods of prolonged fear, chronic neglect or abuse, poverty and hunger means a child’s “stress response” goes into overdrive with devastating consequences for their health and development.

Researchers at Harvard University found that the more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse and depression. 

Consultant Clinical Psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew said: “Children who suffer repeated or long term traumatic events, like living through a war, can suffer irreparable harm.

“The vast majority of children will describe dissociating (shutting off or shutting down/ daydreaming) as a survival mechanism. This process allows children (and adults) to take their mind away from atrocities when they don’t have any control. 

“Children also describe feeling ‘on edge’ through the day, easily startled or sensitive to noise, and at night having nightmares or restless sleep. Some will self-soothe through a repetitive noise or action (like rocking). Toxic stress will limit the development of a child across the board.”

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