Malnutrition interventions in Somalia: Interview with Dr Hussein Sheikh QASSIM

“It’s only lunchtime and we’ve already admitted 151 children today.”

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Dr Hussein Sheikh QASSIM works in the Médecins Sans Frontières(MSF) hospital in Marere, southern Somalia.

In Marere, the situation is extremely dire. This is the only hospital in this part of Somalia. There are no any other clinics – not even mobile clinics – anywhere near here. People are coming here from all over the country. Word spreads.

Recently the numbers have gone through the roof. Even on our quiet days, we are seeing twice as many people as we did on busy days before the drought. The hospital is absolutely full of patients. Some are sick, others just need something to eat. The malnutrition ward is beyond full – of young children, most of them too weak even to eat, so we have to feed them through tubes.

Some of these children had to walk for over 600 km to get here because their parents couldn’t afford transport and were too weak to carry them on their backs. There is an ongoing civil war in many parts of the country, with some towns and villages changing hands on a daily basis. These are dangerous areas and it is not safe to travel. But still the people come.

Those who are lucky and are still on their feet are admitted as outpatients – 300 yesterday, 400 last Friday. But lots of children have to go straight to the inpatient feeding centre. It’s only lunchtime and we’ve already admitted 151 children today.

Recently a mother and her husband brought us a two-year-old boy called Yusuf. He was nothing more than bones and skin. He was too weak even to breathe. The family were pastoralists and all their animals had died. They told me the child had diarrhoea and couldn’t eat. He was in such a bad way you had to listen to his heartbeat through a stethoscope to tell he was still alive. His parents had given up on him – they believed he had no chance of survival and they wanted to leave so they could look after their other children. The father went off to look after the other children while we convinced the mother not to give up.

We put the child in our intensive care unit where we resuscitated him for two hours, until finally he opened his eyes. Then we fed him specialised milk and food through a tube. After 24 hours he started moving his limbs. It was at that moment that his mother’s face suddenly lit up – you could see that she had hope again.

After one week Yusuf didn’t need to be fed through a tube any longer. He could drink milk on his own, and he could say “mum”, and smile back if you called his name. Within 10 days his weight had more than tripled.

After three weeks in our hospital, Yusuf was playing around with the other children. He father came to collect him and he was beyond happiness – he didn’t stop thanking MSF until he’d left the hospital.

As a Somali myself, I can say that if MSF was not here, we would be like a boat that has run out of fuel in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Without MSF’s help, thousands would have died. Somalia needs your help now more than at any other time. MSF saves countless lives and, with your help, will continue to save many more.

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