Medics aim to screen thousands of Gaza children for malnutrition

By Mohammad Salem

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) -Medics in Gaza said on Monday they were working to step up screening of young children for severe malnutrition amid fears that hunger is spreading as people flee to new areas.

Aid group International Medical Corps (IMC) and partners are planning to reach more than 200,000 children under five-years-old as part of a "Find and Treat" campaign over coming months, one of its doctors, Munawwar Said, told Reuters by phone.

"With the displacement, communities are settling in new locations that do not have access to clean water, or there is not adequate access to food," he said. "We fear there are more cases being missed."

Over the weekend, families were already coming into an IMC clinic in the central city of Deir al-Balah, opened after the agency said it had to shut down two centres in the southern city of Rafah due to insecurity.

Five-year-old Jana Ayad had weighed just 9 kilograms when she arrived, suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting, Nutrition Officer Raghda Ibrahim Qeshta told Reuters as she carefully held the child.

"My daughter was dying in front of me," said Nasma Ayad as she sat next to the bed. "I didn't know what to do."

Jana had started putting on some weight after treatment, medics said, but she was still painfully thin with her ribs showing as she lay listlessly in her bunny pyjamas.

Staff can gauge nutrition levels by measuring the circumference of children's arms. During a Reuters cameraman's short visit at least two of the measurements were in the yellow band, indicating a risk of malnutrition. IMC data so far shows the most vulnerable are babies and infants up to two-years-old.

A group of U.N.-led aid agencies estimates that around 7% of Gazan children may be acutely malnourished, compared with 0.8% before the Israel-Hamas conflict began on Oct. 7.

Until now the worst of severe hunger has been in the north, with a U.N.-backed report warning of imminent famine in March.

But aid workers worry it could spread to central and southern areas due to the upheaval around Rafah that has displaced more than 1 million people and constrained supply flows through southern corridors.

More than 37,600 Palestinians have been killed during Israel's military offensive in Gaza, according to Gaza's health ministry.

Israel began the operation after Hamas-led militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking some 250 hostage, according to Israeli tallies.

It says it has expanded efforts to facilitate aid flows into Gaza and blames international aid agencies for distribution problems inside the enclave.

(Writing and additional reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Andrew Heavens)