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Press Release

Public health crisis underway in Cox’s Bazar as Rohingya children face tenfold increase in malnutrition

  • As health conditions for Rohingya deteriorate, IRC launches emergency response
  • Over $12 million needed to provide life-saving services in Myanmar and Bangladesh with tenfold increase in severe malnutrition compared to last year
  • 40,000 Rohingya children face malnutrition and require life-saving assistance

A recent nutrition survey conducted by humanitarian agencies in Cox’s Bazar, led by International Rescue Committee partner Action Contre la Faim (ACF), has revealed shocking levels of malnutrition amongst Rohingya children, only further deepening fears of an impending, and very serious, public health crisis awaiting the world’s most vulnerable group of refugees. The IRC expects a further 200,000 new arrivals in coming weeks- bringing the total refugee population to over 1 million - only exacerbating an already unimaginable humanitarian crisis. 

The survey revealed a severe acute malnutrition rate of 7.5%, nearly 4 times the international emergency level and 10 times higher than last year. With a global malnutrition rate of nearly 25%, this means that a quarter of Rohingya children between 6 months and five years of age - almost 40,000 - are already malnourished and in urgent need of life-saving help. The IRC is especially concerned for children under 6 months, who also face a tenfold increase in mortality based on the circumference of their arms.* The IRC additionally expects malnutrition rates to be even higher as the humanitarian community comes to grips with the full scale of need, including thousands of new arrivals in dire conditions. 

These findings only substantiate the IRC’s latest, and alarming, needs assessment in Cox’s Bazar, which raised the alarm regarding extreme food insecurity, with nearly three-quarters of the population lacking enough food, as well as unsanitary living conditions, with 95% of the population drinking contaminated water - especially as agencies report that two-thirds of Cox’s Bazar’s water is contaminated with feces. 

“The conditions we are seeing in Cox’s Bazaar create a perfect storm for a public health crisis on an unimaginable scale. Extremely vulnerable families with unmet health needs, high levels of food insecurity, limited access to health services and appalling conditions for hygiene, sanitation and access to clean drinking water - all of which contribute to these awfully high rates of malnutrition,” said Cat Mahony, the IRC’s emergency response director in Cox’s Bazar. “The situation will only deteriorate with more arrivals and a greater strain on already overstretched resources.” 

With humanitarian agencies overstretched and underfunded - including primary health clinics with a caseload that has tripled in a month - the IRC has launched an emergency response on both sides of the Bangladesh-Myanmar border for displaced Rohingya. As an immediate measure in coming days, the IRC will be opening four specialized 24 hour care centers with partner ACF for the emergency treatment of severe acute malnutrition. The IRC will additionally imminently launch six “one stop shops” with ACF for life-saving services, a multisector package of critical assistance- including nutrition, violence against women and girls, child protection and health - delivered under one roof, services with the aim of reaching 80,000 in the first six months alone. The response requires $12 million over the next 12 months to meet these immediate needs and ensure dignified humanitarian conditions. To continue to avert this crisis education, protection, health and nutrition, water and sanitation, and cash assistance interventions on both sides of the border are essential but contingent on further funding

“The success of this response, and the lives and futures of countless vulnerable men, women, and especially children, depends on the response from international donors,” added Sanna Johnson, regional director for the IRC, “not to mention the commitment of both the Burmese and Bangladeshi governments to guarantee tenable and dignified solutions for of one of the world’s most vulnerable groups of people.” 

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*The current survey places the average MUAC at 11.8 cm for surveyed children under 6 months - with studies suggesting falling below 11 cm indicates a tenfold elevated risk of mortality.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and 28 offices across the U.S. helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.