Iraqi Children Falling Victim to Malnutrition
The government reports that 25% are chronically underfed. Observers say poverty, poor sanitation and an insecure food network are to blame.
By Solomon Moore, Times Staff Writer
May 14, 2006
BAGHDAD — One in four Iraqi children suffers from chronic malnutrition, as poor security and poverty take their toll on the youngest generation, health and aid workers said Saturday.
The situation is worse in remote rural areas, where as many as one in three children suffers from problems associated with poor diet, such as stunted growth and low weight, according to a recent government report that surveyed 22,050 households in 98 districts around the nation.
ADVERTISEMENT"This can irreversibly hamper the young child's optimal mental and cognitive development, not just their physical development," said Roger Wright, the special representative in Iraq for the United Nations Children's Fund, which provided support for the interagency report.
The study shows that Iraq's current food-rationing program has not been able to meet many families' needs. Iraq's continued instability is the main culprit, disrupting food distribution networks, along with lack of sanitation and clean water, health experts said.
Iraq's lean days began long before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Food was in short supply in many parts of the country as early as the 1980s, when President Saddam Hussein diverted billions of dollars to fund the war with Iran. And after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, U.N. sanctions had a deadly effect on many communities, even as Hussein and his cronies shuttled between lavish banquets and gargantuan palaces.
But the government survey found that although malnourishment rates are lower than during Hussein's time, the problem is growing. The study reported that 9% of Iraqi children were "acutely malnourished," even though enough food was being produced at the national level. The food shortages were generally caused by "a failure to ensure access to sufficient food at the household level," the report said.
Aid workers say that filling the breach would be a relatively simple process if Iraq's security situation were better. After the bombing of Baghdad's U.N. compound in 2003 and the kidnapping and videotaped execution a year later of Margaret Hassan, the local director of CARE International, many nongovernmental organizations left Iraq to set up operations in neighboring countries.
Only a few international aid organizations have continued to have a formal presence in Iraq, hampering efforts to provide food and education to Iraqis in distress.
"Our programs are very low-key," said David Singh, a UNICEF spokesman. "In certain areas, it's impossible to get assistance to children because of the security situation."
A Baghdad pediatrician, who gave his name only as Dr. Zena, said that poor living conditions were a main cause of poor nutrition among Iraqi children.
"Many children have many respiratory system and other chronic diseases," he said. Crowded living spaces were also a factor, said the doctor, leading to poor hygienic situations.
"Drinking tap water is a big problem," Zena said. "It is a necessity that the mother should boil tap water, not only for baby formula but when she drinks it as well. Unclean water causes diarrhea and then malnutrition."
Iraq's poor electrical services add to sanitation problems, making it impossible for many families to keep food refrigerated.
Pediatrician Abbas Hadi said that he sees several malnourished children every day.
"Poverty limits the quality of baby food," he said. "So families give infants cheap food of poor quality because protein-rich food like fresh milk and fruit are expensive. The powdered milk given with food rations is insufficient. In the best cases, rationing gives only enough milk for 20 days."
Still, parliament member pediatrician Jinan Jasim Ubaidi said that however high malnourishment rates are now, conditions were worse under Hussein.
"I was the director of the Child and Maternal Mortality Center in Najaf in 1998, and the mortality rates were unbelievable," she said. "Congenital abnormalities were in huge numbers, and the maternal death rates were very high. But we weren't allowed to report this because of political reasons."
On Saturday, women shopping at grocery stores complained of food prices and said they were not surprised that many of Iraq's children are hungry.
"I only buy meat when I am making kubba," said Umm Haider, a 42-year-old woman, describing a flatbread that is often stuffed with a thin layer of ground lamb. "I used to buy a lot of fruit for my children; now we either buy it once a week or wait for their father's payday [once a month].
"It breaks my heart when my kids want to go to a restaurant and I don't take them. I tell them it is better to fill the electrical generator with gas and let them have cool air than go to a restaurant."
Sanaa Saroor, 58, said that rising food prices have also taken a toll on her family's eating habits.
"We can't even afford to buy the daily things that we need, like fruit and meat," she said. "Even cooking gas is very expensive."
Violence continued to torment the country Saturday.
The headless corpse of an Iranian pilgrim was discovered near a cemetery in Najaf, sending a chill through the holy city's booming spiritual tourism industry. The southern city has been a relative oasis of calm in Iraq, drawing millions of pilgrims to the shrine of Imam Ali, for Shiites the most important religious figure after the prophet Muhammad.
In Baghdad, Sheik Khalil Jabir, a prominent Sunni Arab cleric from Basra, a predominantly Shiite port city in the south, was assassinated along with his son.
Two bodies were found in Madaen, south of Baghdad — both showing signs of torture.
A newly retired police officer was shot to death in the violent Dora neighborhood of Baghdad. And gunmen fired at two brothers in the Baghdad neighborhood of Amiriya, killing one.