The human cost of Yemen’s war: Malnourished babies and children struggling to survive

As the Disasters Emergency Committee launch the Yemen Crisis Appeal, Save the Children worker Alice Klein visits a health centre in Amran which is treating severely malnourished babies to witness the harrowing effects of the food shortages.

Warning: This article contains distressing images.

Yemen is the largest humanitarian crisis in the world with 18.8 million people in need of help, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it.

Until now, there have been few media reports coming out of Yemen, but a handful of hard-hitting pieces in recent weeks have alerted the public to the plight of millions of suffering people.

Like with so many wars and crises, it has been revealed that babies and children suffer first and most.

And my recent trip to Yemen to see the life saving works of Save the Children only served to confirm this heart-breaking reality.

Yemen’s people are starving and without an end to the current conflict and more international aid, what is now crisis will soon become a catastrophe.

I met Fatima, a baby so small I was convinced she was a new-born. It turned out she was actually eight-months-old.

Suffering from severe malnutrition, she weighed just two kilograms – that’s the equivalent of two bags of sugar. The doctor stripped back her blankets and clothes to examine her, revealing ribs jutting out and little limbs of skin and bone.

Some of my friends have babies of a similar age who have a full mop of shiny hair, are smiling and laughing, and learning to sit up and crawl.

By contrast, Fatima just lay there with big bulging eyes that stared out blankly into the distance without the energy to even cry.

Every room of every health centre and hospital I visited contained the same shocking scene: severely malnourished babies and children at death’s door.

Some of the babies don't even have the energy to cry Credit: Save the Children

But it’s not just babies who are affected by the hunger crisis in Yemen.

I met an 18-year-old girl named Saida who was so malnourished she looked more like an eight-year-old. She is short for a teenager and incredibly slight, it is unfathomable to think she is a grown woman.

Since the war started 20 months ago, she has stopped eating solid food entirely. She survived on a daily diet of water, milk and tea.

One month ago her weight plummeted so low, to just nine kilograms, that her family scraped together the money to take her to hospital in the north-western city of Hodeida.

A Yemeni photographer captured photos of her that ran in the papers, making her the face of this terrible crisis.

Saida's weight plummeted to just nine kilograms. Credit: Reuters

After that hospital ran out of functioning equipment and supplies needed to treat her, she was transferred to the Al-Sabeen Hospital in Yemen’s capital Sana’a.

Though now heavier at 17 kilograms, she is still dangerously malnourished.

Saida has difficulty swallowing which she says is painful and takes too much energy. But the doctors are determined she must drink eight cups of formula milk per day if she is to have any chance of getting better.

We spent an hour trying to convince her that the sooner she drank more formula, the sooner she can get stronger and leave hospital to go and be with her family again.

Through tears she managed a few gulps of the nutrient enriched milk. It is starting to work, slowly,and I hope she finds the strength to persevere.

Saida, on her admission to hospital, and now Credit: Reuters/Save the Children

Saida and Fatima are living proof of the human cost of Yemen’s war.

Traditionally the country imports 90% of its food, much of it through a port in Hodeida but this has been largely destroyed allegedly in airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition.

Just two cranes are still functioning making unloading cargo of food, fuel and medicine a slow process while import restrictions remain.

And even when supplies get into Yemen, it takes a long time to get them out across the country, a result of attacks on infrastructure and bureaucratic impediments.

The shortfalls mean food, fuel and medicine are all vastly overpriced.

Combined with the fact Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and millions during the past 20 months have lost their livelihoods, many families now cannot afford to eat properly.

As a result, some two million children are malnourished. And half a million of these are ‘severely malnourished’ meaning they will die unless they receive urgent help from agencies like Save the Children.

As malnutrition lowers children’s immune systems, it makes them vulnerable to other illness and disease, too.

Our teams are supporting 60 hospitals and health centres. We also send Mobile Medical Teams into remote villages to look for severe malnutrition. When we find it, we refer the babies and children to hospitals for urgent treatment and support their families to get there.

But there are many families we cannot yet reach or who cannot afford the trip to hospital.

Some are selling their belongings - such as gold jewellery, gas canisters, cars and livestock - or taking out loans to pay for their journey.

An overcrowded hospital in Yemen Credit: AFP

Even when families can afford to get to hospital, these are overcrowded and understaffed (because public sector workers haven’t been paid for three months).

Many are so low on medical supplies they are sending parents out to find their own medicines.

But the cost of the journey means they cannot then afford it, one mother told me: “The doctor has written a long prescription but those medicines will cost an additional $20 which I can’t afford, so I will just have to throw that piece of paper away”.

Every parent I interviewed was grateful for any help they had received from Save the Children or other agencies, but there is only so much we can do with limited funds and limited supplies.

A quarter of all Yemenis are in a food ‘emergency’, just one step away from ‘famine’. Credit: Save the Children

There are likely tens of thousands more malnourished children who are not reaching health facilities and subsequently dying at home, in silence.

The US-based Famine Early Warning System Network now says a quarter of all Yemenis are in a food ‘emergency’, just one step away from ‘famine’.

Unless we intervene soon, we will cross that tipping point and babies like Fatima will die and young women like Saida will never reach adulthood and their true potential.

That’s why the Disasters Emergency Committee is launching a Yemen appeal, to raise much needed funds for Yemen and agencies like Save the Children who work there.

To donate please text SUPPORT to 70000. The full £5 will go to the DEC Yemen Crisis Appeal.

Alice Klein's views do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.