Recovering from malnutrition in Gaza: Three-year-old Aya’s story

Three-year-old Aya* and her family live in Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza. Aya has recently recovered from severe wasting – a form of acute malnutrition which can lead to an increased risk of infectious diseases and the risk of death – which was spotted and diagnosed by the community health screening team at Ard El Insan (AEI), Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)’s partner in Gaza. Aya was admitted to the therapeutic feeding unit for follow-up.

In the occupied Palestinian territory, and particularly in Gaza, malnutrition poses a serious threat to health and wellbeing. Israel’s military occupation, blockade, and systematic discrimination have caused economic stagnation and restricted access to resources for Palestinians in Gaza. Almost half of the population are unemployed and poverty is rife. As a result, more than two thirds of people in Gaza are food insecure, meaning they lack sufficient access to nutritious food needed to lead a healthy life or – in the case of children – for normal growth.

Despite nearly 16 years of illegal closure and blockade imposed by Israel, food is available in Gaza’s markets. But for many, it is unaffordable. Due to the limited employment opportunities in Gaza, Aya’s mother has not been able to find a job since finishing school. Aya’s father is the only source of income for the family; he periodically works two or three days a month harvesting vegetables and earns about 10 NIS (£2.55) per day. The family cannot afford to buy healthy fresh food such as fruit, vegetables or eggs.

Aya and her three siblings live in one room that is roofed with a few thin metal plates. Her family cannot afford basic essentials like drinking water and electricity, so they use their grandfather's supply, who lives in a house below them.

Every three months, UNRWA – the UN agency for Palestinian refugees – provides Aya’s family with food parcels. But cuts to UNRWA’s funding, including from the UK, have hindered its crucial services, including food aid, putting low-income families at risk of malnutrition. Aya was one of the children at risk but, thanks to assistance from AEI, she is now a healthy child.

“Israel’s blockade and its many repercussions, such as poverty and unemployment, along with a lack of parental awareness, have impacted all aspects of life, including the number of children who suffer from malnutrition.” – Wasim Al Baz, AEI.

Staff from AEI visit nurseries across the Khan Yunis Governorate to assess children's health. According to their most recent statistics, a startling 22% of the children assessed are referred to AEI's center for treatment of malnutrition. Aya was among those children.

AEI is the only clinic focused on child malnutrition in Khan Yunis and the only clinic in Gaza treating children and adults with coeliac disease. It also provides essential medical care, distributes food packages, provides fresh meals, and supplements, and runs health education sessions about healthy eating and food preparation.

Aya’s mother attended individual counseling and awareness sessions to learn more about the causes, complications, risks and ways to prevent malnutrition. Aya received nutritional supplements and multivitamins, prescribed by a doctor, to support her health during the follow-up period. Additionally, her mother attended the cooking demonstration sessions where the centre teaches parents how to make nutritious meals with the help of MAP's food packages.

To make it easier for her to attend and get the services on time, Aya's mother received transportation expenses. After three months of follow-up, Aya was discharged in August last year with better indicators of weight for her age and in a good health condition.

“Aya had a poor appetite, lack of concentration, and fatigue but I noticed some progress from the first visit to AEI’s centre,” said Aya’s mother. “I now share my experience regarding the quality and quantity of food with my sisters-in-law, and I strongly encourage my neighbours to visit AEI.”

Thousands of children at risk of malnutrition

With one million children now living in Gaza, Aya is just one of many thousands of children who have suffered as a result of their difficult economic conditions. With MAP’s support, AEI screened 9,117 school-aged children in the Khan Yunis Governorate last year. In just this sample in one governorate in Gaza, more than 22% of children screened needed malnutrition follow-ups at the AEI centre. 1,800 children (898 boys and 902 girls) were admitted for nutritional treatment and management of wasting, growth faltering, and anaemia.

“The link between good nutrition and school performance is well established, which is why we are supporting a project that will assess the health and nutritional status of preschool-aged children in areas where there are few health programmess in place,” said Wasim Al Baz, Project Coordinator at AEI.

“The political issues, Israel’s blockade and its many repercussions, such as poverty and unemployment, along with a lack of parental awareness, have impacted all aspects of life, including the number of children who suffer from malnutrition.”

“The most significant challenge for AEI is a lack of funds. Unfortunately, more than 11% of malnourished children in 2022 were not admitted to an AEI centre for treatment,” said Wasim.

Haitham Al-Saqqa, MAP’s Community Programme Officer, added: “One thing I consider unique about this project is that we reach out to children at nurseries, instead of waiting for parents to visit AEI centres or be referred by private and government-run clinics.”

Please consider donating to MAP today so we can help more children at risk of malnutrition.

*Name changed for the protection of individuals involved.

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