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UNICEF Says Malnutrition In Parts Of Syria Reach Record Levels


A fresh round of peace talks is underway in Geneva. But there is little hope negotiators will broker an end to the civil war in Syria. That's the news lead. But there is another fact of life in Syria today - hunger. UNICEF has just completed a new survey in East Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, and found alarming rates of acute malnutrition among children. Hunger has grown significantly worse over this year. Juliette Touma joins us now from Amman. She is UNICEF's chief of communications for the region. Ms. Touma, thanks very much for being with us.

JULIETTE TOUMA: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Can you tell us what a day's or a week's food might look like for child in East Ghouta?

TOUMA: What we know right now based on the survey that we've just conducted is that malnutrition in East Ghouta has reached its highest level since the war began in Syria more than six and a half years ago. The situation is quite desperate. The needs of these children are huge. And we need to get there and give them supplies and assistance that they need.

SIMON: You've had people in the region conducting the survey. What did they learn from children and their families?

TOUMA: According to the survey, 11 percent of the children surveyed have acute malnutrition. And malnutrition can be treated. So this is why it's absolutely crucial that UNICEF delivers therapeutic supplies to treat children with malnutrition. We did have a very good window of opportunity earlier this week - in fact, a few days ago, when UNICEF was able with other U.N. agencies to get in and deliver some supplies. And that window of opportunity is a window of hope for the children of Ghouta.

What we do need is more of these humanitarian convoys to get in to deliver assistance on a regular basis with no conditions but also quality access so that we as medical personnel and us humanitarian workers are able to spend time with the children to do assessments to get a better understanding on the situation on the ground so that we're able to send the assistance that people in this besieged area really need.

SIMON: Who would have to open those windows of access for you?

TOUMA: We have called, and we do call again on all parties to the conflict to pause for a bit and think about children, to prioritize children's needs and to put the politics aside and think that there are starving children, and there are children across the country who need assistance. And above all, what UNICEF calls for is for this war to come to a final end.

SIMON: Yeah. If there's a malnutrition problem with children, it suggests that nobody is eating.

TOUMA: Well, what we have in this particular area is limited availability of basic food commodities like milk, like eggs, like dairy products, like fresh produce. Mothers are not able to breastfeed or nurse their children because they're either malnourished themselves, or because they are stressed or tired because of the violence. And that can be another contributing factor to why we have so many children malnourished in that area.

SIMON: Juliette Touma of UNICEF, thanks so much for being with us.

TOUMA: Thank you, Scott. Thank you so, so much for covering this story. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.