I’m back now from my trip to Uganda and Kenya, but the images of the children there keep stealing into my thoughts. Pictures of a tiny boy, 14 months old but looking like 4 months, a fragile little girl with stick arms crying on a small cot, a mother cradling her sick 8-month-old son whose wide eyes follow us as we move from bed to bed in the stabilization center. Most have intravenous ports taped to a foot or a hand. We visited all these children in the center in Habaswein, a dusty town in the northeast part of Kenya some 200km from the Somali border. The sun bakes everything brown, but the stabilization center is mercifully cooler. Ten mothers and their children are there today, on clean but sparse beds arranged in rows, some recovering, most in dire need of help for severe malnutrition and medical complications like pneumonia or diarrhea.
I’ll be candid: this is a very tough trip.
Our delegation, which includes our Board Chair Anne Mulcahy, Board members Henry McGee and Bill Haber, as well as Henry’s wife and daughter, visit each bed as the head of Save the Children’s health programs here explains the condition of the children. It is hard to concentrate on anything but the kids, so small and thin, some crying, others lying listlessly in the heat. We meet a boy, 13-months-old who has just been brought to the center. He weighs under 7 kilos, or a little over 14lbs. His eyes are half closed and he only responds when his mother picks him up to move him on his tiny blanket. I try to remember when my own sons weighed 14 lbs – at 4 or 5 months I think? The Save the Children staff tells us this little boy came only yesterday, his mother carrying him on her back and walking many kilometers from a town further east towards the border. He is being treated with antibiotics for pneumonia and given a milk powder called F150, fed by his mother. After several days, he’ll be well enough to get a new formula and within a week, he’ll likely leave with his mother with a supply of Plumpy Nut, a peanut based paste that is super-fortified for malnourished children. Hopefully he’ll recover once he’s home and his mother can start feeding him maize porridge, a local staple, again.
We meet another child, so thin and sick we aren’t sure she will survive the day. We are told she is here for a second time, with pneumonia again. Sometimes the short stint at the center is just not enough to stabilize such sick children. But we also meet a small boy who seems to be recovering well, who has already gained almost four pounds in his five days spent atthe center His eyes are brighter and he’s stronger than the others. His mother gives us a tired smile when we congratulate her on how well he’s doing. Since August, this center has served about 120 children with medical complications and Save the Children has served almost 5,000 with acute malnutrition in the area since January.
But this center should not exist in a place like Habaswein. In fact, it shouldn’t exist anywhere.
There is no reason children should be facing starvation today. And we’re all to blame, really. The failure of the rains here in Kenya and across the region were predicted over a year and a half ago and the international community—donor governments, UN agencies and NGOs like Save the Children—simply took too long to act. By the time we’re seeing starving children in the media, it’s too late for the kids here. It’s estimated that in the 90 days between May 2011 and end July, 29,000 children died of acute malnutrition and complications across the Horn of Africa. Children like the ones we met in Habaswein. Read our report, “A Dangerous Delay,”to understand more of why this tragedy exists and what we can do all do to stop it.
We are still not doing enough, which is very clear in Kenya’s South Wajir district where the center is located. Malnutrition rates continue to soar with May 2011 surveys indicating Global Acute Malnutrition rates of 28.5% and a Severe Acute Malnutrition rate of 4.2%. We need far more resources to reach these children now. Investments in food security programs (to help pastoralist families invest in diversifying their income and food stocks) are so much more cost-effective that delivering millions of tons of food to families everyday, as we are forced to do now. It’s hard to get the attention of donors to give to what we call “disaster risk reduction,” the set of programs in food security and disaster preparedness needed to head off a crisis like the one now stalking the children of Habaswein and throughout the Horn. But it’s where we need to head as soon as we can if we want to stop what is happening in the Horn for good.
The world delayed its initial response to this crisis, and children are paying for it.The children in Habaswein today—and generations of children still to come—deserve better from all of us.