Tackling malnutrition in the northeast

The Syrian government and international and local NGOs aim to address malnutrition in the northeast by raising awareness among the local population of healthy practices. The malnutrition rates in the region are one-and-a-half times as high as in the rest of the country, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Entitled Facts for Life, the free guide gives advice on nutrition, breastfeeding, HIV/AIDS prevention and the adverse effects of smoking, among others.

"Malnutrition rates in the northeastern governorates are higher than the Syrian average," Ali Adbul Hussain, nutrition consultant for UNICEF Syria, told IRIN. "This is due to poor infrastructure and is one of the major effects of the drought in the region." A three-year drought has decimated Syria’s agricultural sector.

UNICEF says malnutrition is just one issue of concern. "The indications for the northeast are all below the averages for the country, but especially on malnutrition where the figures are alarming," Razan Rashidi, a UNICEF communications assistant, said.

Stunting rates in children under five - one of the World Health Organization's (WHO) malnutrition measures - are 35 percent in the northeastern region against 22 percent in the rest of Syria, according to Iman Bahnasi, UNICEF child survival and development officer.

Raising awareness is the guide's main aim. "There remains a lack of education in the region of the links between breastfeeding, immunisation and nutrition on a child's chances of growing up to be a healthy adult," said Rashidi.

The guide makes simple information accessible to all those with only primary education. Each chapter ends with practical, easy-to-implement methods to tackle the respective health issue.

"Malnutrition can mean not enough food - or too much - or a deficiency of a certain nutrient, all of which can lead to illness," Rafe Bundy, a lecturer in nutrition at the University of Glasgow, told IRIN.

Photo: Bridget Auger/IRIN
These corn fields in Hassake governorate in northeastern Syria will die if rain is not forthcoming (file photo)

"In children, there may not be enough energy or protein for the body to grow properly and then malnutrition can lower the body's immunity and lead to illnesses such as diarrhoea, which means the body diverts energy to fighting infection rather than growing. The resulting stunting is irreversible," Bundy explained.

Further ramifications of malnutrition in children include an increase in mortality (30 to 50 percent of global mortality in under five-year-olds is associated with malnutrition, according to the Basic Support for Institutionalizing Child Survival (BASICS) Project), irreversible reduction in height and weight, low school achievement and susceptibility to other illnesses, according to specialists. Focusing on children will reduce problems in the next generation of adults, they say.

Breastfeeding is one method to combat malnutrition. "Breast milk contains the ideal nutrient profile for children - and it's free," said Bundy. WHO and UNICEF recommend exclusive breastfeeding for six months.