Scurvy outbreak and erosion of livelihoods masked by low wasting levels in drought affected Northern Afghanistan

By Fitsum Assefa

Signs of scurvy: blackness of the legs indicative of haemorrhage

Fitsum Assefa is a nutritionist who recently joined Save the Children, United States (SC/US) as nutrition/food security advisor to the newly established Emergency Response Unit. She has been involved in nutrition and food security programmes in a number of African and Asian countries, mostly in emergencies, and previously worked with MSF-Holland and Concern worldwide.

Kohistan is one of the most remote districts of Faryab Province in Afghanistan. It is in the south of the province bordering Badghis and Ghor provinces and is an eight-hour car journey from the provincial capital of Maimana to the district capital Bandar. The area is normally inaccessible by car for about six months of the year, due to snow and rain. However, the recent mild and dry winters have allowed access for more than eight months each year.

Since 1995, SC/US has run primary health care and women's micro-credit programmes in the four districts that make up the Andkhoy region of the northern part of the province. In the second half of 2000, SC/US initiated drought response activities in northern Afghanistan, primarily in the Andkhoy region. The response included emergency cash loans, cash for work activities and 'complementing' WFP's wheat ration with pulses and oil. In March 2001, SC/US conducted a rapid assessment in southern Faryab. The assessment confirmed the seriousness of the situation in the predominately rain-fed areas. Subsequently, SC/US decided to expand drought response activities into the southern part of Faryab province, co-ordinating closely with WFP-supported wheat distribution activities. SC/US conducted a nutritional survey at the beginning of April.

Background to the Nutritional Survey

Peri-follicular haemorrhage typical of scurvy

The total population of the district is estimated to be 57,630 and is clustered in two main areas.

The district economy is reliant on the production of rain-fed wheat and barley. In the past, the district was self-sufficient in grain and in most years exported to other parts of Afghanistan. Other important agricultural activities in the district include the cultivation of oil crops (mainly sesame), fruits (mainly melons), and fodder crops. Raising sheep, goats and cattle is a very important source of cash as well as food. Oxen are important for traction.

Health services are almost non-existent and there are no doctors working in the whole district. There are only a couple of drug vendors at the district capital, Bandar. There is no routine EPI program and there has never been a measles vaccination campaign. The most common illnesses include diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, tuberculosis and measles.

Access to drinking water is very poor for most villages in the highland areas. In some villages people (usually women and children) have to walk (up to five hours) up and down the mountains to collect water from the river.

WFP had started food distributions in other more accessible parts of the province. They also attempted a 'once-off' wheat distribution for part of the population in Kohistan in November 2000. However, this was in a location at least 2 days walking distance (one way) from the centre (Ser-e Haus) of neighbouring Pushtunkot district. Only a few people from the surveyed area are thought to have benefited from this distribution, as the cost of time and transport to carry the food was considered to be very high.

From the limited information collected during the earlier rapid assessment (March, 2001), it appears that the drought in the past three years has had a devastating impact on the food and economic security of the district, especially for those dependent on rainfed agriculture. The villages in Lafraye, Mulghee, Khoitoor, Pusiarcha and Sarisang were reported to be the worst affected1.

Though the situation in the whole of Faryab Province, especially Kohistan, has been recognised to be serious, there were no previous comprehensive population-based assessments conducted. Therefore SC/US initiated this survey with a view to assessing nutritional status, food security and mortality.

Methodology of Assessment

SC/US used the standard methodology for a twostage cluster sampling based on a sampling frame of 44 villages. The sampling frame included all the villages in the district that had more than 20 households, were accessible within a maximum of one day walking, and were under government control. A total of 378 households, a population of 3,165, were covered in the survey. Half the survey teams were Afghani women with middle/higher level education. The provincial authorities issued permission both for the overall survey as well as the involvement of women.

Prevalence of acute malnutrition2

The cumulative prevalence for moderate and severe wasting and/or kwashiorkor are illustrated as follows:

Approximately 40% of the severely malnourished were kwashiorkor cases. There was no significant difference found in the prevalence of malnutrition between boys (7.1%) and girls (7.0%), p=0.4. Whilst there is no previous baseline information on the nutritional situation of the district, wasting rates in many parts of rural Afghanistan are normally expected to be around 5%. According to the findings of this survey, 7.0% acute malnutrition did not appear to be a problem of public health significance.

Micronutrient status

Swollen and bleeding gums typical of scurvy

In contrast, the micronutrient status of the population was very poor. A widespread prevalence of vitamin C deficiency disease locally known as "Seialengia" (black legs) was observed during the survey probably complicated with other mineral and vitamin deficiencies. The disease was especially common in Lafraye and Melgee sections. In some of the villages in these sections the deficiency disease is estimated to have affected up to 10% of the population.

The disease affected people of all ages and gender but to a lesser extent children under the age of 2 years. About half of the most severely affected patients were adolescent boys (10 - 18 years) while the elderly were also one of the most affected groups both in terms of frequency and seriousness of the disease. Seialengia mainly affected the poorer families with usually more than one case per family. The incidence of the disease was reported to be higher from mid-December to mid-February. Victims were bed-bound for weeks. Although some people reported that they were showing signs of recovery, none of the affected had completely recovered. Some people who were able to get medicines from drug vendors in Bandar (mainly vitamin C tablets and vitamin B-complex injections) were showing a faster recovery.

 

In most cases all the signs and symptoms of scurvy, as described in textbooks, were manifested: blackness of the legs (indicative of haemorrhage), gum swelling and bleeding, joint pain and swelling especially of the knee and ankle joints, backache, pigmentation and hardness around the hair follicles especially on the legs (suggestive of failure of the hair follicle eruption). Most cases had developed hard crust-like black skin on the knee and ankle joints, reportedly because they have not been washing for weeks as the area was too painful to touch, and sometimes resulted from the herbs they put on them (see picture).

Most Seialengia patients also had angular stomatitis (cracks at the corner of the mouth), swelling and discolouration of the tongue and lack of appetite.

 

Dietary investigation

Peri-follicular haemorrhage

The consumption of fruits and vegetables by most of the population had been minimal since last summer. The level and severity of the deficiency disease suggests extremely low intake of vitamin C in the winter months. At the beginning of March wild green leaves became available and later other plants. Consumption of these was extensive. Incidence rates in the previous month were declining, suggesting that wild leaves were making a significant contribution. However, the Seialengia cases were hesitant to eat the leaves thinking it would aggravate their problem and/or due to general lack of appetite. The methods used in cooking/processing the wild plants are thought to significantly reduce vitamin C intake from this source. Leaves are cooked for long periods and the water in which it is cooked is not consumed.

In conjunction with the World Health Organisation (using vitamin C tablets provided by WHO), SC/US treated around 250 Seialengia cases with appropriate treatment doses in the 29 cluster villages during the survey.

Food Security and Coping Strategies

Afghani boy with swollen and bleeding gums

According to respondents, before the drought, an average family in Kohistan owned around 15 goats, 25 sheep, 2 oxen, 2 cows and 2 donkeys. As a result of the drought many people had sold most of their animals, dramatically reducing the average family animal ownership to only 1.1 goats, 1.8 sheep, 0.3 cattle/oxen and 0.7 donkeys.

The average number of meals in the previous 24 hours was 2.7 (72.2% of the households consumed three meals while 28.8% reported a recent reduction of meals to two, especially for adults).

It appears that grain stocks from previous years had made a significant contribution in mitigating the impact of the drought, at least in the first two years. Selling livestock was an important coping mechanism employed by most people. At the time of the survey however, there were very few animals left to sell and very few other economic opportunities existed (i.e. selling labour, selling crafts, etc.). People were resorting to 'risky' coping strategies with very low returns such as selling land, displacement, begging and taking loans with high interest rates. The redistribution of resources among relatives was widely practised, but it was not clear for how much longer such support could continue.

According to respondents, extensive labour migration to Iran is not a usual or preferred income source under normal circumstances, as the type of work available is considered physically difficult, degrading (mainly work on construction) and often poorly paid. However, at the time of the survey almost every family in the district had sent at least one man to Iran, and more men were still leaving. Although most men were reported to have left for Iran much earlier, it seemed that the number of men who had left in the last four months (since the start of Ramadan) was significant. The adult population (older than 15 years) female to men ratio has changed from 1.1 before Ramadan to 1.6 at the time of the survey. Of those who had left, none had yet started sending money back. The workers first had to pay back significant loans used to get them to Iran3.

The severe impact of the drought was also reflected in changes in some cultural and traditional values. Many villagers reported that daughters were being given to marriage at a lower than normal age (about 5% of the interviewed households were using bride price as their main source of current income). The daughters' bride prices have decreased from the norm of at least $1,800 or up to 100 goats/sheep plus 3-6 cows to less than $300 or 20 goats/sheep.). Under normal circumstances, the girl only leaves her family when the bride price is completely paid. Currently, some daughters are being given to their husbands before payment is completed - it was also reported that a few families have given their daughters in marriage for free as they did not have enough to feed them (though it was difficult to verify this information). The other interesting pattern is that men in the district are not able to afford the bride price because of the economic crisis. Therefore, many girls are marrying men from other parts of the province or country - an unusual practice4.

 

Summary of current WHO Guidelines 'Scurvy and its prevention and control in major emergencies' WHO/UNHCR, 1999

Provisional criteria for determining severity of public health problem of vitamin C deficiency

In the absence of laboratory facilities the following guidelines may help determine appropriate intervention5.

Severity of public health problem
Indicator Mild Moderate

Severe

Clinical signs

?1 clinical case

<1% of population in age group concerned

1-4% of population in age group concerned ?5% of population in age group concerned

 

Requirements of vitamin C

The daily requirement is estimated at 30mg (FAO,WHO, 1970). For active adult males the daily requirement has been suggested as 40mg due to the relatively rapid turnover of vitamin C and enhanced needs resulting from stress and physical exercise6. With a diet completely lacking in vitamin C, body stores will last approximately 2-3 months. The extent to which scurvy contributes to mortality is uncertain. However, as vitamin C is associated with protection against infection and enhances iron absorption (WHO 1976), deficiency may have a significant impact on mortality especially in this situation in Afghanistan where primary health care facilities are negligible.

Treatment protocol for scurvy

In cases where a population is at high risk of scurvy or where cases of scurvy have already been identified and all the other options for intervention are not immediately feasible, vitamin C supplements need to be considered.

The WHO recommended treatment of scurvy is through the administration 1 g of ascorbic acid daily for 2-3 weeks. Although smaller doses for shorter periods may relieve immediate symptoms and signs, the larger doses and more prolonged treatment are recommended to prevent relapse7. In the longer term, it may be difficult to maintain consumption consistently and coverage may be limited.

Prevention strategies for vitamin C deficiency8.

Where there is local production of fruits/vegetables:

  • Add fruits/vegetables to the ration
  • Encourage barter or purchase by providing 10% extra ration
  • Home gardens could be established where and when feasible (distribution of seeds and education)
  • Nutrition education should be a component of every intervention
  • 'Wild foods' can be exploited (roots, leaves, wild fruit) and may contribute substantially to vitamin C intake.

In areas where vegetables, tubers and fruits cannot be easily produced or procured locally as in this situation in Afghanistan, alternative strategies for prevention of vitamin C deficiency include:

  • Distribution of foods fortified in vitamin C (e.g. fortified flour)9.
  • Distribution of fortified cereal/legume blended food (120 mg vitamin C per ration). All members of the household should be targeted.
  • Distribute fortified vitamin C enriched foods e.g. tomato paste, orange juice powder, dried fortified peppers. These are relatively expensive and unlikely to be readily available.

Note: Scurvy and its prevention have also been discussed in detail in the following articles in Field Exchange, Issue 5:

  • Appropriate vitamin C fortification levels for CSB
  • Micronutrients: the basics
  • Reduce scurvy risks through germination

 

Findings/Lessons learnt

Conclusion

A number of relief workers in Afghanistan have been involved in large-scale nutritional emergencies, mainly feeding centres, clinics etc. in the Horn of Africa. I heard many discussions whereby direct comparison with experiences in the Horn led to the conclusion that the situation in Afghanistan was more or less fine. However, this is a very different situation. The last drought in northern Afghanistan was 30 years ago and lasted for only one year, enabling people to deal with it easily. In contrast, the current drought has lasted 3 years, economic circumstances have deteriorated markedly and people have had to use up all their assets to survive. If such droughts re-occur every decade or so, then it is not inconceivable that an 'Ethiopian highlands' type situation may occur whereby small shocks lead to high levels of malnutrition and mortality as large numbers of people live on the edge of destitution. Responses to this drought should therefore include efforts to prevent this happening.

Recommendations

Show footnotes

1According to the local population, the district has had three consecutive years of rain/snow failure, which has affected cereal harvests as follows: 50% reduction in 1998, 85% - 90% reduction in 1999, 95% - 100% reduction in 2000. An 80 - 90% reduction is predicted for the 2001 harvest.

2CI= 95% confidence interval with calculated cluster effect.

3(up to $300, with 100% interest rate, compared to the normal cost of only $150)

4Recently the SC/US team encountered a 13 year old girl in Andkhoy district who was "sold" from Kohistan for $120.

5Derived from: Sauberlich et al., 1974, Desenclos JC et al. 1989.

6Olson and Hodges (1987).

7The management of nutrition in major emergencies. WHO, Geneva, 2000.

8Scurvy and its prevention and control in major emergencies, The Micronutrient Series, WHO, 1999.

9See also News piece in this issue on WFP pilot project on fortifying flour with essential micronutrients.

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Reference this page

Fitsum Assefa (2001). Scurvy outbreak and erosion of livelihoods masked by low wasting levels in drought affected Northern Afghanistan. Field Exchange 13, August 2001. p13. www.ennonline.net/fex/13/scurvy