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May 25, 2022, 9:29 a.m. EDT

1.1 million Afghan children could face severe malnutrition

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By Associated Press

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — In Afghanistan, 1.1 million children under the age of 5 will likely face the most severe form of malnutrition this year, according to the U.N., as increasing numbers of hungry, wasting-away children are brought into hospital wards.

U.N. and other aid agencies were able to stave off outright famine after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year, rolling out a massive emergency aid program that fed millions.

But they are struggling to keep pace with relentlessly worsening conditions.

Poverty is spiraling and making more Afghans in need of aid, global food prices are mounting from the war in Ukraine and promises of international funding so far are not coming through, according to an assessment report issued this month.

As a result, the vulnerable are falling victim, including children but also mothers struggling to feed themselves along with their families.

Nazia said she had lost four children to malnutrition — two daughters and two sons under 2 years old. “All four died due to financial problems and poverty,” the 30-year-old Nazia said. When her children fell ill, she didn’t have the money to treat them.

Nazia spoke to The Associated Press at Charakar Hospital in the northern province of Parwan, where she and her 7-month-old daughter were both being treated for malnutrition. Her husband is a day laborer but is also a drug addict and rarely brings in an income, she said. Like many Afghans, she uses only one name.

UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, said 1.1 million children this year are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition, also known as severe wasting, nearly double the number in 2018 and up from just under 1 million last year.

Severe wasting is the most lethal type of malnutrition, in which food is so lacking that a child’s immune system is compromised, according to UNICEF. They become vulnerable to multiple bouts of disease and eventually they become so weak they can’t absorb nutrients.

The numbers of children under 5 being admitted into health facilities with severe acute malnutrition have steadily mounted, from 16,000 in March 2020 to 18,000 in March 2021, then leaping to 28,000 in March 2022, the UNICEF representative in Afghanistan, Mohamed Ag Ayoya, wrote in a tweet last week.

Hit by one of its worst droughts in decades and torn by years of war, Afghanistan was already facing a hunger emergency; but the Taliban takeover in August threw the country into crisis. Many development agencies pulled out and international sanctions cut off billions in finances for the government, collapsing the economy.

Millions were plunged into poverty, struggling to afford food for their families. By the end of last year, half the population of around 38 million lived under the poverty line, according to U.N. figures. As the economy continues to crumble and prices mount, that could rise this year to as high as 97% of the population by mid-2022, according to the U.N. Development Program.

Because of poverty, “mothers do not have proper nutrition during pregnancy, and are not able to eat properly after birth, said Mohammad Sharif, a doctor at Charakar hospital.

At the Mirwais Hospital in southern Kandahar province, 1,100 children with malnutrition have been admitted in the past six months, 30 of whom died, said Dr. Mohammad Sediq, head of the children’s ward.

One mother, Kobra, said she had been unable to breastfeed her 6-month-old child. “He is constantly losing weight and cries a lot, I know it is all because of hunger, but can’t do anything” she said.

At her home in an impoverished district of Kandahar city, Jamila said her 8-month-son died last month after being diagnosed with severe malnutrition. If she doesn’t get help, she fears for her other four children, she said.

“The government hasn’t helped us at all, no one has asked us if we are hungry or have something to eat or not,” she said.

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