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Thousands of children in Zimbabwe ‘could starve by Christmas’

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Worst drought in decades leading to a rise in child malnutrition.

Thousands of children in Zimbabwe could be facing starvation by Christmas unless the country gets more help to deal with the impact of one of the worst droughts in living memory, Save the Children warns today.

The food shortage is most acute in the district of Binga, only four hours’ drive from the well-stocked tourist hotels and restaurants of Victoria Falls.

Tanya Steele, the interim CEO of Save the Children UK, who visited Binga last week, was told that some mothers are going up to five days without food.

Steele met community health workers who are having to supplement what little food they have with foraged berries to feed their own children before inspecting babies and toddlers for signs of malnutrition.

“This is an emergency,” she said. “Some children are already dying of complications from malnutrition. Others are very ill. There are mothers are who so stressed about not being able to feed their families that they’re suffering from hypertension.”

The number of under-fives who have so far died in Binga has reached 200 in the last 18 months, about three times the usual rate, according to Save the Children. The death rate among infants admitted to hospital in emergency cases has risen significantly, the charity says.

The alert follows a warning by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, this week that millions of lives have been turned upside down by the El Nino climate phenomenon, which has resulted in prolonged drought and crop failures across a swathe of eastern and southern Africa.

Zimbabwe is one of the countries hardest hit. A lack of rain between December and February meant there was little corn or maize to harvest in April. Government officials estimate that 4.1m people – around a third of the population – will be hungry by the end of the year.

Ministry of Health statistics show 946 children under five in Binga have been officially registered as suffering from ‘severe acute malnutrition’ so far. The number is expected to rise sharply in the coming months.

Save the Children representatives in Zimbabwe say this figure is only ‘the tip of the iceberg’ as many severely malnourished children in rural areas are not formally registered.

Nearly 3,000 under-fives are suffering from ‘moderate acute malnutrition’, according to a newly released official report by the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVac), while others in the same condition do not appear in the statistics.

The majority of those who go for treatment will survive. But according to Save the Children’s nutrition and health manager in Zimbabwe, Tendai Gunda, most of the severely malnourished children who receive no help are likely to die. Around half of those with moderate acute malnutrition could also perish without some form of intervention.

“It’s completely heartbreaking when we lose a child,” said Gunda, 34, whose own son, Jayden, succumbed to suspected pneumonia at 10 months while she was away working in Sudan. “I always think of the simple steps that could have been taken to save a child’s life. For $10, we could buy 4 litres of milk and a crate of eggs to save eight children for a week.”

Zimbabwe’s government, which declared a state of emergency in February, is distributing grain, while the World Food Programme is preparing to offer free meals at some schools in Binga.

Save the Children is running a ‘cash transfer’ system in which 22,000 of the district’s inhabitants receive credits on a sim card that can be used to obtain money or food. The charity has appealed to the European Commission for $6m to keep the cash-for-food scheme running until next spring.

Joseph*, 17, who lives with his paralysed mother, blind grandmother and three adopted siblings, is one of those who have benefited since cash transfers began last September.

Before the scheme was introduced, Joseph and his grandmother begged for three years on the streets of Victoria Falls. Now that his family is receiving $42 a month and can afford simple meals, Joseph has returned to school. His favourite subject is maths and he dreams of becoming a mechanical engineer.

“The most difficult thing about begging was seeing children like me in uniforms going to school,” he said. “I was not happy to be responsible for the family.”

Save the Children also funds a Garden Trust initiative that encourages villagers to grow their own vegetables.

Janet Mudenda, 41, a community health worker in the village of Simatelele, wants to monitor every vulnerable child but does not have a bicycle to reach remote homesteads, and goes everywhere on foot, First, however, she has to find wild berries or roots to feed her five children, aged 3 to 17.

“We have women deserted by men who are going three to five days without food,” she said. She expects that 10 babies will starve to death this year in a population of around 3,000 people.


Images available to download here.

For more information contact Save the Children media team, media@savethechildren.org.uk, 0207 012 6841 or 07831 650409.

* indicates names have been changed to protect children's identities.