NEW YORK/ADDIS ABABA, July 6, 2023—Malnutrition rates are surging beyond emergency levels in many areas of Ethiopia, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned today, calling for the immediate resumption of food distributions that were suspended across the country in early June.
More than 20 million people in Ethiopia rely heavily on food assistance, especially refugees and displaced people. Those most at risk include pregnant women, new mothers, children under five years old and people living with HIV.
“The suspension is an alarming development because it comes after an extended period of sporadic and irregular food aid distributions, at a time when the humanitarian situation across the country is already dire,” said Cara Brooks, MSF country director for Ethiopia. “People are grappling with the worst drought in four decades, economic hardship and recurring violence. Even before the suspension came into effect our medical teams were witnessing alarmingly high rates of global acute malnutrition, well above the emergency threshold."
The suspension of food distributions comes in the context of investigations into the widespread diversion of food aid. In May, food distributions were suspended in the Tigray region, and then were suspended across Ethiopia in June. Food distributions were infrequent and irregular in the prior months, which contributed to the high rates of malnutrition that MSF has witnessed.
From January to April, the staff at MSF clinics in Shire and Sheraro, in the Tigray region, screened 8,000 pregnant women and new mothers and found that 72.5 percent were acutely malnourished. Mothers who are malnourished are at a higher risk of experiencing complications during childbirth, and their babies are more likely to have poor health outcomes. The clinic staff also screened 17,803 children under five and found that 21.5 percent had moderate acute malnutrition and 6.5 percent had severe acute malnutrition, which is life-threatening.
In other areas of the country, the situation is also deteriorating. In the health center at Kule refugee camp, in the Gambella region, the number of children under five being treated by MSF teams for severe malnutrition has almost doubled. In 2022, MSF teams admitted 44 children per month on average; so far in 2023, this has jumped to 86 children per month.
Obtaining enough to eat is a particular challenge for refugees, including about 400,000 people from South Sudan in the Gambella region. Due to their refugee status, they cannot earn an income and are dependent on aid. Many have been forced to reduce their already inadequate diets.
“A reduced dietary intake puts people at risk of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies like anemia and weakens their immune systems,” said Samreen Hussain, MSF medical coordinator. “With low vaccination coverage, increased malnutrition heightens the risk of catching infectious diseases such as measles and cholera, with many regions in Ethiopia experiencing outbreaks.”
The Somali region of Ethiopia is of particular concern as it has the most children under five with acute malnutrition, and also has one of the lowest vaccination rates for many diseases.
MSF calls on all stakeholders to take immediate action and respond to the needs of the most at-risk communities through targeted food distributions, and to resume full and regular food distributions as a matter of urgency, while improving communication about where and when distributions will take place.
“We already see that the food shortage is pushing vulnerable communities into harmful coping mechanisms, including selling assets as substitutes for food, begging, and child labor,” Hussain said. “This situation will only worsen with a protracted suspension of food aid.”
MSF activities in Ethiopia
MSF has been working in Ethiopia for 37 years, providing medical assistance to people affected by conflicts, epidemics or disasters, or who have limited access to health care, in collaboration with Ethiopian authorities at local, regional and national levels. We have been providing kala azar care for more than 20 years, including our dedicated kala azar and snakebite project in Abdurafi, Amhara, and through emergency interventions. All our activities are guided by the humanitarian principles of humanity, independence, neutrality and impartiality.
On June 24, 2021, our colleagues María Hernández Matas, Tedros Gebremariam Gebremichael and Yohannes Halefom Reda were brutally and intentionally killed while clearly identified as humanitarian workers in Tigray. After extensive engagement with the Ethiopian authorities, we still do not have any credible answers on what happened to our colleagues that day. MSF will keep pursuing accountability for this incident by using all possible means and avenues, which we hope will also contribute to improving the safety of humanitarian workers in Ethiopia.