Tsunami Children Suffer From Malnutrition

In a ramshackle refugee camp of destitute farmers and fishermen on Indonesia's Sumatra (search) island, hunger is rare these days. But so are protein, vegetables and vitamins. A month after the tsunami devastated Aceh province (search), aid deliveries of rice, noodles and powdered milk have kept children in the camp in Lamreh village looking healthy. But adults say they badly need a more varied diet.

"We don't starve, but we don't get enough nutrition," said Ani, 26.

A survey this month by the United Nations children's agency found that one in eight children are malnourished in an area that is the target of a huge international aid effort.

While no children are in danger of starving, UNICEF (search) says 12.7 percent of those surveyed at camps in and around the provincial capital of Banda Aceh suffer malnutrition, which stunts growth, retards mental development and weakens the immune system.

In a draft report reviewed by The Associated Press and scheduled for release next week, UNICEF calls the situation a "critical emergency" requiring immediate intervention and warns that conditions could be even worse farther outside the provincial capital.

In the Lamreh camp, about an hour's drive from Banda Aceh, 32 families have been getting by on aid from foreign agencies and the government since the Dec. 26 tsunami robbed survivors of their livelihoods by wrecking fishing boats and poisoning agricultural fields with salt.

"Even if there was someplace to buy food, we don't have the money," said Ani, who like many Indonesians uses only one name.

Aid groups including the U.N. World Food Program have been shifting in recent weeks from delivering only emergency rations like rice and noodles to providing more varied fare that includes protein and vitamins. The UNICEF survey and interviews in the Lamreh camp suggest that effort has yet to reach many children.

Ali Mokdad, a U.S. researcher who headed the UNICEF survey, said delays in some shipments immediately after the killer waves hit had forced youngsters to live off basic rations at first.

Most children now have a more well-rounded diet, he said, but about 12.7 percent of those surveyed weren't getting enough protein and other key nutrients.

The survey of 614 boys and girls, ages 6 months to 5 years, in 19 settlements covered only the area around Banda Aceh, where food and other aid shipments have been plentiful.

However, on Sumatra island's remote west coast, malnutrition is likely far worse because damaged roads, bridges and ports have posed major logistical problems for deliveries, Mokdad said.

He said the prevalence of diarrhea, vomiting and fever among displaced children also raises concerns, because ill youngsters are more likely to suffer malnutrition than healthy ones. About half of those examined complained of diarrhea and fever in the previous two weeks, and about a third had vomited, he said.

"It's a scary finding. Quite honestly, unless we improve water and sanitation in the camps where these children are staying, it's going to get worse," said Mokdad, who is chief of behavioral surveillance at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

UNICEF officials said they had discussed their findings with Indonesia's Health Ministry, and were coordinating with other U.N. agencies to distribute emergency supplements like bananas and porridge.

Increased shipments of canned fish and meat, sugar, cooking oil and fruits and vegetables to the Banda Aceh camps are making a difference in the province, where about 4 million people live, about 3 percent, or 120,000 of them children younger than five, Mokdad said.