Ethiopia: MSF responds to alarming malnutrition rates among displaced people

An MSF staff member prepares to attach an IV line to a malnourished child at the stabilization center in Gedeb hospital in Gedeo, Ethiopia.
Ethiopia 2019 © Markus Boening/MSF
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NEW YORK/ADDIS ABABA, APRIL 17, 2019—Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has launched a medical intervention in the Gedeo area of southern Ethiopia following a nutritional assessment in late March, which found malnutrition rates above emergency levels for children under five. The international medical humanitarian organization is calling on other humanitarian agencies to urgently scale up their support for the large number of internally displaced people living in the area.

The nutritional assessment revealed alarming findings—including among children under five and pregnant women—poor living conditions, and limited availability of safe drinking water. It’s critical that access to treatment is scaled up, and that outreach is conducted in the community so that parents know the signs of malnutrition and when and where to take their sick children.

MSF teams are now supporting the Regional Health Bureau with a focus on nutrition. So far, they have treated more than 200 children under five for severe acute malnutrition in two stabilization centers that treat malnutrition only and have seen over 55 pediatric patients who are being treated in the pediatric department for illnesses like pneumonia, watery diarrhea, and dehydration.

“Upon screening children under five years old in the camps, we saw an immediate need to scale up the response for the treatment of malnourished children, as the few facilities in the area were completely overwhelmed and could not offer the specialized care needed for children with complications,” said Markus Boening, MSF field coordinator in Gedeo. “One of the biggest problems is that malnourished children are arriving too late to be treated, which shows there are gaps in the community outreach component of the current response.”

The MSF response will expand in the coming days to include improving the water and sanitation conditions in some of the IDP camps and informal settlements, including increasing access to clean water supplies and latrines. Local health authorities have reported several thousand cases of watery diarrhea in recent last weeks—a condition that is common in overcrowded settlements where internally displaced people are living.

“The camps are overcrowded and people are living in extremely poor conditions,” Boening said. “The people there are at risk of outbreaks of deadly disease epidemics while their health is already very vulnerable after being forced to move so many times.”

MSF has returned to Gedeo only three months after closing one of its largest emergency interventions of 2018, which was launched after a massive number of people were displaced by ethnic violence. At the peak of the displacement crisis last July, Ethiopian authorities reported that close to one million people had been forced from their homes. 

By December, health indicators had improved, hospital admissions had decreased, and many people had either returned to their homes or left the collective sites. Yet, the situation has dramatically deteriorated since then, as reports of insecurity, threats of violence and a lack of support led many people to return to Gedeo.

“Those IDPs that did not move back were absorbed into host communities,” said Mohamed Morchid, MSF’s head of mission in Ethiopia. “However, resources in these communities are depleted and staying there means the IDPs cannot access humanitarian aid. As a result, many are now going to the new IDP sites in the search of humanitarian aid like healthcare and clean water as well.”

Assessments are ongoing to identify further gaps in the provision of nutrition and healthcare, but medical services alone cannot solve the multiple needs of this distressed population.

“It is crucial to continue mobilizing efforts—at the local, regional, and federal levels—and to scale up the delivery of aid to ensure that people’s pressing needs for healthcare, shelter, water and sanitation, and food are covered,” Morchid said. “It is also important that people can move freely and safely to access humanitarian aid, not only in Gedeo but also in other regions of Ethiopia with internally displaced people.”