Feeding hungry children in remote Ethiopia

Ethiopia, August 4, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Three-year-old Hibo on her mother's hip. Until recently, she was classed as having severe acute malnourishment, but Mercy Corps' mobile emergency clinics helped her back to health. Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    More than 100 women and children gather for Mercy Corps' mobile emergency clinic in eastern Ethiopia's drought-stricken Gashamo district. Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps

Hibo — a tiny, chubby-cheeked three year old — seemed to take great delight in looking everywhere except my camera as I tried to take her photo. From her mother's hip she giggled, turned away and pulled faces by turns, to the amusement of all around.

Hibo is tiny for her age because until recently, she was classed as having severe acute malnutrition, the most serious of its kind. She has chubby cheeks now because thanks to one of Mercy Corps' mobile emergency clinics, she got the food and treatment she needed to recover, put on some weight and get back to being an ordinary, mischievous toddler.

"She had many pains from drinking bad water and not enough food," her mother, Zainab, told me. "She had diarrhea, fever, no appetite and many other problems. We have only flour and oil to eat and all the pasture has died with no rain, so our animals died too. I brought her to the clinic because it is the only place for such help. They gave her special food and medicines, and took us to a centre nearby where she stayed and got better. Now she is very well and happy. I bring her here often to make sure she stays healthy."

Mercy Corps' mobile health and nutrition teams travel around remote parts of Ethiopia, checking for and treating malnutrition in pregnant and nursing women, as well and children under five, helping with vaccinations and giving health support in any way they can. The mobile clinics are often the only health facility available to the communities they reach, and can each see up to 150 people every day.

Earlier this week, I met Hibo and Zainab at one of these mobile clinics, a nine-hour drive on dirt roads from the nearest major town. They, along with more than 100 others, stood waiting in the dust for their turn for a check up from the Mercy Corps nurses and nutrition specialists. The land around them, while among the best in the area, was dry and harsh, with red dust blowing everywhere and camels wandering around in the distance.

The team assessed everyone in turn, looking for signs of malnutrition. Those with moderate malnutrition are given food supplies and advice on how to recover, and monitored to check they are recovering. Those with severe acute malnutrition are given special fortified foods, medicines where they're needed, and in some cases, like Hibo, they are taken to a recovery centre while they get better. Mercy Corps helped two local centres gear up to take in those who need the most help, giving training and supplies so they can give much-needed support to hungry children and mothers.

Between the mobile clinics and recovery centres it's clear our teams are making a real difference. But the nutrition team told me they've seen a spike in the rates of malnourishment across the last month because of the drought, and that they are struggling to meet the huge and very real need. As the drought continues, the situation may well get much worse.

Later, as I turned to leave the clinic and begin the long drive back to the nearest town, I looked back at Hibo. She was pulling her mother's scarf and gurgling merrily, like a happy child anywhere else in the world.