Nine-month-old Ayen is one of the youngest citizens in the world’s newest country, but despite his age he has lived enough hardship for a lifetime.
After conflict broke in South Sudan last December, Ayen’s father decided to join the fighting and left him with his mother in Pagak, a small village on the eastern edge of the country, near the border with Ethiopia. When a UNICEF rapid response team arrived in the area, Ayen had become badly malnourished and was suffering from severe dehydration, his life hanging by a thread.
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Ayen’s 20 year-old mother Nyaring was distraught. “I am scared that my son will die and his father won’t be even here to bury him. He left three months ago and hasn’t come back. I don’t even know if he is alive or not,” she told the team. “What if I lose both of them? I will be alone and have nobody else in life. I would prefer to die too.”
When Ayen’s father left for the fighting, his young son started refusing to breastfeed. Nyaring believes her own stress is preventing him from eating, even though she has also tried repeatedly to give him cows’ milk and porridge.
“He doesn’t take anything. He has been sick for two months but now it has got a lot worse. I heard a plane had come with help, so I decided to walk to the clinic and bring my son,” she explains. When he arrived at the local health clinic, Ayen was examined by a UNICEF nutritionist and referred for treatment with therapeutic food and Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS). With this treatment, he will live.
Given its location, Pagak has been receiving large influxes of displaced South Sudanese and food insecurity is threatening the area. The township has one permanent health clinic managed by three nurses and a clinical officer, totaling four staff for a population of nearly 10,000.
Children in South Sudan already faced emergency levels of malnutrition in the two and a half years since the country gained its independence in 2011. Conflict has now pushed them to the edge, with a quarter of a million likely to suffer from dangerous levels of malnutrition this year. Unless they are reached with treatment, up to 50,000 children under the age of five could die.
UNICEF is deploying rapid response teams to the most remote areas, such as Pagak, to reach as many children as possible, aiming to treat at least 150,000 severely malnourished children under five. They are bringing much needed services, supporting breastfeeding mothers and pregnant women, and delivering ready to use therapeutic foods, micronutrient supplements, medicines, water purification sachets, Vitamin A and deworming tablets.
Holding her son in her arms, Nyaring is relieved her baby boy is getting medical attention:
“I’m a lot happier now that I can see my son is being helped,” she says, “I think he will live. This is a new beginning for him.”
Ricardo Pires, UNICEF South Sudan
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