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Malnutrition Rates Reach Alarming New Highs in South Sudan

The number of severely malnourished children far surpasses emergency thresholds with several months to go before harvest season
A health worker measures a child's MUAC
A health worker measures a toddler’s middle upper arm circumference to check for malnutrition. Photo: T. Frank

Today marks the one year anniversary of South Sudanese independence from Sudan. How do things fare for the South Sudanese population one year later? Today, we share the alarming news about the continued hunger crisis in one part of the country. And stay tuned to the blog later this month for more stories about our work in the world’s newest nation.

In humanitarian crises, one of the measures we use to assess the nutritional status of a population is global acute malnutrition, or GAM. To evaluate the GAM level, aid workers typically measure the weight and height of children between 6 and 59 months. If 15% or more of children are classified as suffering from acute malnutrition, it’s considered a serious emergency.

According to new field assessments from Action Against Hunger, in Aweil East, a South Sudanese county in the conflict-ridden border with Sudan, the prevailing malnutrition rate is a staggering 28.7%. That’s nearly double the threshold for a critical emergency. The severe acute malnutrition rate, or SAM, also stands at 6%; this is extremely worrisome, as it far surpasses the 2-3% range that marks emergency levels.

Assessing a dire situation

One contributing factor to the alarming rate of acute malnutrition is Aweil East’s huge returnee population. More than 16,400 South Sudanese have returned to their native country and landed in Aweil East between October and February; more returnees are expected in the near future. There has also been an influx of Internally Displaced People from Abeiye and Kordofan arriving in Aweil East.

A 15% global acute malnutrition rate is enough to constitute a large-scale critical emergency. In South Sudan’s Aweil East county, that rate is 28.7%—nearly double the emergency threshold.

They are returning to a region wracked by enormous food shortages and skyrocketing prices. There was a 40% decrease between 2010 and 2011 in the amount of time that harvests last. Net cereal production is down 34% since 2010, presenting a real challenge for a county where the main livelihood is agro-pastoralism. The border closure and north’s blocking of transport over it are making access a large issue, as well. Beyond the shortages and access problems, the variable climate, crop pest infestations and conflict have increased commodity prices for the staples that do make it to market, but the food is largely unaffordable for much of the population.

Water and sanitation conditions are not helping the overall picture, either. Over 60% of the population spends between one and four hours a day fetching water—the majority of which is not treated—and only 3% of the population in the county use improved sanitation facilities, as most households have no access to latrines.

Acting on urgent recommendations

With a GAM rate near 30% and months to go before the next harvest this fall, Action Against Hunger plans to urgently act on the recommendations that came out of our field research:

  • Ramp up inpatient and outpatient therapeutic nutrition programs for children diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition using Ready to Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF);
  • Increase nutrition screenings of at-risk children to detect malnutrition and ensure early treatment;
  • Scale up nutrition programs for moderately malnourished children using Ready to Use Supplementary Food (RUSF);
  • Food-for-work programs and other activities that increase household access to food;
  • Expand community outreach programs to educate populations on how to prevent malnutrition and where treatment can be found;
  • Promote safe hygiene and sanitation practices like hand washing and use of latrines to reduce the risk of diseases; and
  • Ensure people use safe water sources like hand pumps rather than unprotected sources (e.g., rivers or other surface water sources), which are much more prone to contamination.

Similar interventions will be taking place in neighboring Aweil South, which faces troubling malnutrition rates of its own—18.6% global acute and and alarming 2.6% severe acute.

As always, we can’t do this lifesaving work without you, our friends. We thank you for any support you can provide to help create a better future for the children, women, and men of South Sudan.

Tell Us What You Think

Thousands of South Sudanese are returning home to a land crippled by a food crisis. Can you imagine what it’d be like to leave home and come back to a place you don’t recognize, or where you didn’t feel safe? What will you do to raise awareness of the suffering faced by children in Aweil East?

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About Elisabeth Anderson Rapport

Elisabeth Anderson Rapport, Senior Communications Officer

Elisabeth is Action Against Hunger's senior communications officer, reporting on our impact and current events around the world.

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