Save the Children is warning of a malnutrition crisis in the Bangladeshi district of Cox’s Bazar, where more than half a million Rohingya have arrived in the past six weeks after fleeing horrific violence and bloodshed over the border in Myanmar.
An estimated 281,000 newly arrived Rohingya are in need of urgent nutrition support to prevent or treat malnutrition, according to new data from the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, including 145,000 children under the age of five and more than 50,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women.
At least 14,000 newly arrived Rohingya children under five are already believed to be suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
“We’re seeing an alarming number of children arriving in Bangladesh desperately hungry and malnourished after fleeing their homes in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State. Then they are exposed to grim living conditions in camps where they don’t have good hygiene, where there is dirty, contaminated water everywhere and where they have no choice but to rely on food rations to survive,” said the Director of Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit, Dr Unni Krishnan.
“Not only does this exacerbate their nutritional status, but it puts them at a far greater risk of contracting a water-borne disease like cholera, which, for children like this could easily be fatal. We know that in these conditions, the risk of a major outbreak of disease is very real.
“In over 20 years as a humanitarian worker I’ve never seen a situation like this, where people are so desperate for basic assistance and conditions so dire. I’m extremely concerned about the health of the youngest Rohingya children, who are facing a frightening reality that no child should have to endure.”
At least 507,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district since August 25, when there was a major escalation of violence in northern Rakhine State that saw reports of entire villages being burnt to the ground, civilians being shot at as they tried to flee and women being raped.
Among them was Fatima, who fled Myanmar with her three children after she found her husband dead in their village.
“There have been times where I cannot eat for days at a time as there is no food,” she said. “I have a young son, he became so pale and cold he was close to death after not eating for days. My sorrow was so strong, others who saw also began to cry.”
Now Fatima and her children receive food rations from Save the Children, which last about 15 days.
“I used to cook lentils only, it was all I could offer my children. Today though I can cook with rice, lentils, oil and everything. I am happy,” Fatima said.
Save the children is scaling up its humanitarian response and has deployed nutrition experts and its Emergency Health Unit. The aid agency is dispatching nine health and nutrition teams in Cox’s Bazar district to provide breastfeeding support for women, treatment for infant malnutrition, primary healthcare, and psychosocial support to mothers, while working closely with local authorities, other aid agencies and the Ministry of Health.
“While nutrition programming across the board has increased rapidly, it needs to be scaled up even further, and urgently, to address the basic needs of infants and young children and curb acute malnutrition, to reduce the very real risk of fatalities,” Dr Krishnan said.
“Walking around the camps, it’s clear that a significant number of children are showing all the signs of hunger and acute malnutrition, which is an alarming prospect when they’ve just fled so much horror across the border in Myanmar.
“Another challenge we face with nutritional status of children in particular, is that lots of mothers are losing confidence to breastfeed because of the stress of their situation and the lack of privacy in over-crowded camps. This takes away one of the best sources of nutrition and immunity protection for their newborns, which in a situation like this can be lifesaving.”
Save the Children has been speeding up its distributions, which include providing basic hygiene items like soap and buckets to help people keep clean, as well as food, basic kitchen utensils and tarpaulins for shelter. It is aiming to reach 30,000 families – or some 190,000 people – through these distributions.