Little Maido is being treated with special milk for severe malnutrition
Infants with sunken eyes and wasted muscles lie unnaturally still and silent, their energy sapped by severe malnutrition. Their frail bodies are weakened by dehydration and diarrhea. Some have contagious diseases such as measles or whooping cough.
But these youngsters have a good chance of recovery. In this peaceful compound in south-west Somalia, doctors are working miracles and bringing patients back from the brink of starvation.
Save the Children’s stabilization center in Baidoa is a haven for the region’s most dangerously malnourished youngsters.
Hadijo Issack arrived three days ago with her 18-month-old daughter Maido after walking for three days from their rural village, then traveling by car.
She says: “My child was very sick, she wasn’t eating and was vomiting. She had diarrhea and both her legs were swollen.
“She was deteriorating day after day so I decided to leave my family and seek medical help. Now she seems to be recovering because she’s taking her medicine and drinking the F75 milk.”
Dr. Wehliye checks on 18-month-old Maido
Half of Somalia’s population of 17 million is facing food insecurity after five failed rainy seasons decimated crops and livestock.
Over a million people have been forced to abandon their homes in search of food and humanitarian aid – and 600,000 have ended up living in camps here in Baidoa.
Estimates suggest as many as 43,000 excess deaths were caused by the drought last year.
Hadijo, who does not know her age but appears in her late teens or early twenties, comes from a community of pastoralists who reared cattle.
They lost their livelihoods and food became dangerously scarce when the worst drought in four decades struck East Africa.
Little Maido is being treated with F75 therapeutic milk, specially formulated with low levels of protein, fats and sodium as the first phase of treatment for severe malnutrition. Some patients also receive ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF).
Hadijo says: “I’ve seen a big change. Her appetite is good and everything seems restored. I hope we will go to the next phase soon.”
Some patients arrive as walk-ins while others are referred from Save the Children’s mobile health clinics.
Mothers queue up at these smaller clinics to have their children screened for malnutrition via checks of their height, weight and arm circumference.
On the stabilization center’s rehabilitation ward, the volume level is higher and children further along in their recovery are guzzling from cups of formula.
Milk cascades down the t-shirt of one hungry infant whose mother patiently wipes away the excess with a towel.
In a separate building, two-year-old Weeydow has been isolated because he has measles.
His grandmother, Hawo Abdi, 50, tells us they arrived eight days ago. “He was vomiting, had diarrhea and was swollen all over his body,” she says.
“He was severely dehydrated. Initially he did not eat well, but since being here his appetite has improved day after day. Now he is eating the RUTF and rice. If he eats too much he vomits.”
Mothers queue to have their children screened for malnutrition
Hawo knows of the measles vaccine but says it was not available in their village, which is under the control of terrorist organization Al-Shabaab.
She is relieved Weeydow is recovering but when I ask about his future, her face falls. Hawo says sadly: “I fear he will become malnourished again because I can’t give him a balanced diet when we go back to our rural home. He is ok now but there is not much hope.”
Last year more than 3,000 children were admitted to this facility and all except 15 survived, with a 97.4 percent cure rate.
Dr Mohamed Osman Wehliye explains that access to state healthcare in Somalia is poor following decades of unstable government, and most people struggle to afford private treatment.
The country has also experienced outbreaks of contagious diseases such as measles because vaccine uptake falls when day-to-day survival takes priority.
Charity-funded centers with specialist programs to combat malnutrition provide a lifeline. Dr Wehliye says: “Last year there was a large pick up in admissions – more than 20 per day.
“Two months ago it was down, but now it’s gradually increasing. I’m expecting to see more children admitted with acute malnutrition.”
The devoted medic has a masters degree in nutrition and communicable diseases and has worked here since 2017. He checks on patients as we pass through the wards, listening to their chests and looking for signs of progress.
Dr Wehliye has two young daughters – Rayan, one month, and two-year-old Sabrine. He speaks passionately about his work and the stabilization center’s impact on the community, but admits it takes a mental toll.
He says: “When you are a doctor in this town, this facility, emotionally you become very damaged. Most children, when we admit them, are just skin and bones.
“The mothers are also malnourished. Sometimes I feel emotional and it brings tears to my eyes because of the tragedy I’m seeing day after day.
“We hope to overcome this. The community must work hand-in-hand and we need the government to restore the infrastructure of this country, including the health system.”
Hawo and Weeydow (left) and a child are weighed at a mobile clinic
Said Mohamud Isse, national media advisor for Save the Children Somalia, says funding from the international community has supported this vital work and delayed the country passing the threshold of famine.
But he warns that the resources available to humanitarian organizations still do not match the magnitude of the crisis.
He adds: “Close to 1.8 million children are suffering from malnutrition.
“We need to sustain the support that these communities are getting to avoid Somalia slipping into a famine. We don’t want to lose the gains that we have made.”
You can find out more about Save the Children’s work here.
I witnessed the unimaginable suffering of those affected by drought in Somalia, writes ANDREW MITCHELL
Somalia faces one of the world’s most devastating humanitarian crises. Millions are in desperate need of aid and the level of suffering is appalling.
We cannot afford to sit back as bystanders. We must act now.
Providing urgent support to the world’s most vulnerable is our priority, which is why the UK is one of the biggest donors of aid in Somalia, working with partners to address the ongoing disaster.
Last year, I saw first-hand the unimaginable suffering, meeting people in drought-hit areas and hearing their stories.
UK support to Somalia is reaching many of the most vulnerable, with crucial support including emergency health services, cash transfers to buy food, and shelter for those displaced from their homes.
In 2022-23, we committed humanitarian, health, and nutrition funding to respond to the ongoing drought in Somalia. This has helped provide access to a range of life saving support, including safe drinking water for 1.3 million people.
Since 2018, our humanitarian and resilience program has supported over nine million people.
However, Somalia needs more help and remains extremely vulnerable to climate change – it has been through five failed rainy seasons, and this cycle of crisis means there is no clear return to “normal”.
We can and must support Somalia to improve its resilience, removing barriers so it can access climate finance and better deal with environmental changes.
Latest estimates show 6.6 million people in Somalia are still facing severe food deprivation.
That’s why the UK is co-hosting the Horn of Africa pledging event in New York later this month, which will bring further international attention to the humanitarian needs of Somalia and the wider region, help it boost climate resilience and fast-track commitments for long – term solutions to humanitarian crises.
Our efforts must – and will – continue to make a difference.
– Andrew Mitchell is the Minister for Development and Africa in the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office