29 October 2010
Many children remain missing
More than 100,000 children left homeless by Pakistan’s floods are in danger of dying because they simply do not have enough to eat, according to UNICEF.
Children already weak from living on too little food in poor rural areas before the floods are fighting to stay alive, as diarrhoea, respiratory diseases and malaria attack their emaciated bodies. The floods have already affected more than 20 million and nearly half of them are homeless. Many have been herded into crude, crowded camps or left to fend for themselves along roads. But doctors warn the real catastrophe is moving much slower than the murky waters.
UNICEF estimates about 105,000 children younger than five are at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition over the next six months. Erin Boyd, a UNICEF emergency nutritionist working in southern Pakistan, describe the situation “you are seeing children who were probably very close to the brink of being malnourished, and the emergency has just pushed them over the edge. There is just not the capacity to treat this level of severe acute malnutrition”.
Inside the government-run Railway Hospital in Sukkur Sindh province, doctors have already converted one ward into a patient-feeding centre. Some babies weighing a fraction of what is normal wail and gasp on diarrhoea-stained sheets, while others cry quietly as if trying to find the strength to cry. Some little cheeks are sunken in. Others have hollow eyes or bottoms that are merely bones covered by folds of scaly, wrinkle skin.
Their mothers sit on the beds beside them, spoon-feeding milk and pinches of plumpy nut, the sweet peanut butter-based nutritional paste dubbed chocolate by doctors. Many of the women are unable to produce breast milk because they are weak and ill themselves. The situation in the camps is even worse, as more and more children are falling ill. The visit to these camps made it very clear that women and children are suffering the most. You can hear hundreds of horrifying stories from these women and children. The stories are of misery, suffering, hunger, poverty and helplessness. What is incredible is the number of children who never been to school. There are helpless mothers who are watching their children dying from starvation and illness. Suhani Bunglani is a mother in a relief camp with two children. Her newborn girl has already died and the remaining two baby girls are waiting the same fate. Now the girls, aged one and two, are slowly starving, with shrivelled arms and legs as fragile as twigs. Doctors roaming the camp, which bakes in 38-degree celsius, and which reeks of urine and animal manure, have warned Bunglani three times to take her children to the hospital, or they will die. The mother says she knows they need help, but she cannot leave the tent without her husband’s consent. She must stay until he returns, even if it means risking her daughter’s lives.
Another women, Jannan Soorjo, summoned the energy to give birth in a graveyard that has become her refuge from the floods but she cannot produce the milk to feed her sickly newborn. She looks down helplessly at her crying son saying that she has not eaten enough to produce food for the baby. “I have not been able to suckle him since he was born. We have nothing else to feed him to stop him crying. Her husband Ahmad Soorjo, a farm labourer, says that with two cows, three goats and plenty of grain to eat at home, they felt relatively comfortable. Every man among the 100 families in the village had a job to do, a home to live in and a family to head. Now we are all beggars. I tried to find any job but failed. What shall we do? I cannot beg.”
The displaced flood have said that lack of clean drinking water and high temperatures are causing illnesses sweeping through relief camps, with children most at risk. Currently, almost ten million are without shelter following devastating flooding sparked more than a month ago by heavy monsoon rains. Parents are worried about the education and health of their children in the camps. Many mothers told us that their children are traumatised and scared. The people are getting skin and eye infections. Doctors are saying that they are seeing traumatised children who are in shock on entering camps.
International aid agencies carrying out relief activities in the flood-hit areas of Pakistan feared that hundreds of children have been separated from their parents. Local populations in most of the affected areas had to move to safer places, leaving behind all their belongings to secure their lives, as the magnitude of devastation by floods was huge. According to international aid agencies, many affected families have reported their children as missing.
A spokesperson of the British organization, Save the Children, expressed his concerns and his belief that the children are unsafe. He said that it is difficult at this juncture to estimate the exact number of missing children. However, he estimated it could be in hundreds. OXFAM and the ICRC have also expressed the same concerns about these missing children. The parents of many separated children are not even sure whether they are alive or dead.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) warned that thousands of pregnant women displaced by floods face heightened risks of death and disability unless relief efforts are increased to meet their needs. According to UNFPA estimates, nearly half a million women in flood affected areas are pregnant and every day around 1,700 of them go into labour, more than 250 of them would experience complications, which call for life saving medical intervention. Yet most of those displaced in the crisis still lack access to proper health services, including skilled delivery assistance. The maternal mortality is high in Pakistan in ‘normal’ times, with 500 women dying in 100,000 births. Trauma, malnutrition and poor hygiene make the flood victims more vulnerable.
Health officials said they fear that thousands of babies will be born in the country’s flood-affected areas over the next six months, and are at severe risk of malnourishment because of the scarce of food supply. The floods have so far claimed at least 147 lives in Sindh; mostly women and children who fell ill because of the unhygienic living conditions or from waterborne diseases. The spread of lethal disease increases when a large number of children are stuffed in the crowded atmosphere of the camps and no government action to provide them with adequate healthcare facilities can be seen. The situation is extremely critical, but health authorities are not taking it seriously.