Children's Voice Nov/Dec 2006

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It Takes a Global Village

Growing Up Amid War and Sanctions

The images are splashed across the television news every day--bombed buildings, dilapidated villages, and countless dead. But throughout war-torn Iraq, another battle is being waged. Iraqi children are fighting to survive.

Since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, malnourishment among children has become rampant in Iraq, where half of the country's 27 million people are under age 18. A United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report released in 2004 details how 25% of all Iraqi children under age 5 are chronically malnourished--a treatable condition. UNICEF also reports that one in eight children die before age 5. Seven out of 10 children suffer from various degrees of diarrhea that, left untreated, can lead to severe dehydration and death.

In 2004, the Washington Post provided a glimpse of the problem when it interviewed Kasim Said who was visiting his underweight 1-year-old son Abdullah in a Baghdad hospital. Abdullah weighed 11 pounds--10 pounds less than an average 1-year-old boy, according to the World Health Organization's Child Growth Standards. Because of the war, Abdullah's father had not been able to find work, so he and his wife could rarely afford the nutritional supplement Abdullah desperately needed.

The Post described how in the same hot, fly-infested ward, only a few beds away from Abdullah, Suad Ahmed sat with her 4-month-old granddaughter Hiba. The baby suffered from chronic diarrhea and was nothing but skin and bones. She, like so many other children, lacked the proper nutritional supplements and medical care necessary to survive.

According to a 2005 cooperative study by Iraq's Health Ministry, Norway's Institute for Applied International Studies, and the United Nations Development Program, some 400,000 Iraqi children suffer from wasting, a condition in which children experience an unintentional loss of 10% or more of their body weight due to chronic diarrhea and protein deficiencies.

Ironically, Iraqi health officials point out that when these children's parents were children themselves, their biggest health problem was obesity. But a collapsed infrastructure due to decades of war and sanctions has since left Iraqis with a crippled economy and inaccessibility to nutritious food, clean water, and proper medical care. Malnourishment became a serious problem for the country's children in 1991 following the Persian Gulf War, when the United Nations imposed sanctions on Iraq. [See "Between Iraq and a Hard Place," Children's Voice, Spring 1999.]

Child malnourishment rates today are now three times higher than they were before the economic sanctions were imposed on Iraq, and, according to UNICEF, the number of malnourished Iraqi children has doubled to 9% since the U.S.-led invasion three years ago.

Because of poor security, very few international aid organizations continue to operate within Iraq. In 2003, the main UN headquarters in Baghdad was bombed. The agency is now stationed in neighboring Jordan. In October 2004, CARE International withdrew from Iraq after Margaret Hassan, the agency's local director, was kidnapped and executed. That same fall, Doctors Without Borders also left Iraq.

UNICEF continues to operate in Iraq, although access to certain areas of the country has been difficult. "Our programs are very low key," UNICEF spokesperson David Singh told the Los Angeles Times in May. "In certain areas, it's impossible to get assistance to children because of the security situation." One of UNICEF's main programs has been distributing high-protein biscuits and therapeutic milk to boost nutrition in both children and lactating women.

According to its website, the International Medical Corps (IMC), a nonprofit global humanitarian organization headquartered in Santa Monica, California, continues to provide support to Iraq's vulnerable children. IMC responds to areas struck by natural disasters and war worldwide. By distributing food, providing access to clean water, supplying basic medical supplies, training Iraqi health workers, and improving the conditions of medical centers, IMC hopes to strengthen the Iraqi health care system so it is less dependent on foreign aid.

IMC's website says the organization is also operating more than 700 Community Child Care Units (CCCUs) in Iraqi schools to educate families about proper nutrition. IMC volunteers diagnose children in the schools and teach parents how to avoid malnourishment. Children who are in severe condition are sent to either a Primary Health Care Center, where they receive high-protein biscuits, or to a hospital.

IMC nutritionist Jean Luboya explains in a press release the importance of CCCUs: "Child malnutrition slows brain development and drastically decreases the capacity for learning. CCCUs are teaching nutritional practices such as breastfeeding to avoid the devastating combination of contaminated water and baby formula. CCCU intervention can drastically improve the lives of Iraqi children."

--Stephanie Robichaux, Contributing Editor, Children's Voice.

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