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Syria Turns the School Playgrounds into Vegetable Gardens to Feed Hungry Children

The ongoing crisis in Syria is having a devastating effect on the health and nutrition of an entire generation of children

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A boy sells vegetables and fruits along a street in the Damascus suburb of Qudsaya, Syria
A boy sells vegetables and fruits along a street in the Damascus suburb of Qudsaya, Syria. VOA
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  • Young children are often the most vulnerable to malnutrition in a crisis
  • Good nutrition is a child’s first defense against common diseases

School playgrounds across Syria are being transformed into vegetable gardens where children whose diets have been devastated by six years of war can learn to grow and then eat — aubergines, lettuces, peppers, cabbages, and cucumbers.

Traditional Syrian cuisine is typical of the region and rich in vegetables. Its mainstays include hummus, minced lamb cooked with pine nuts and spices, varied salads, stews made with green beans, okra or courgettes and tomatoes, stuffed cabbage leaves and artichoke hearts.

But the six-year war has changed that for much of the population, and many now live mainly on bread or food aid.

According to U.N. figures, unemployment now stands at more than 50 percent, and nearly 70 percent of the population is living in extreme poverty, in what was once a relatively wealthy country.

“The ongoing crisis in Syria is having a devastating effect on the health and nutrition of an entire generation of children,” Adam Yao, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) acting representative in Syria, said on Tuesday, ahead of the start of the school year.FAO is helping some 17 primary schools in both government and opposition-controlled areas to plant up to 500 meter-square fruit and vegetable plots in war-torn areas including Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Idlib and the outskirts of Damascus.

FAO is helping some 17 primary schools in both government and opposition-controlled areas to plant up to 500 meter-square fruit and vegetable plots in war-torn areas including Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Idlib and the outskirts of Damascus.Young children are often the most vulnerable to malnutrition in a crisis, which can have serious and long-lasting effects on their growth and future development.

Young children are often the most vulnerable to malnutrition in a crisis, which can have serious and long-lasting effects on their growth and future development.

“Good nutrition is a child’s first defense against common diseases and important for children to be able to lead an active and healthy life,” Yao added.

The primary schools, which began planting in May, have produced 12 tons of fruit and vegetables. Another 35 schools are expected to start transforming their playgrounds soon in Aleppo and in rural areas around Damascus.

Also Read: Ground Report: How ISIS is ruining lives of people in Syria and Iraq

Rising prices, falling production

The price of food has risen since the start of the war — agriculture production has plummeted, and the country now relies on food imports to make up the shortfall. Transporting food around the country has also become difficult and costly.

About 13.5 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance. Of those, 7 million are unable to meet their basic food needs.

Some 5 million people receive international food aid, but not everyone in need can be reached, and the World Food Program says it has had to cut a number of calories in its family food baskets because of funding shortages.

“The donors are generous, but we don’t know how long they can continue to be generous and rely on taxpayers’ money,” the FAO’s Yao told Reuters.

Vulnerable families are receiving help from FAO to grow food at home, so they can become less reliant on food aid.

“Food aid is very important, but … we should combine both, in a way that people grow their own food and move away from food aid gradually,” he said.

In a country where more than half the population has been forced to flee their homes, many moving several times, investing in agriculture helps people to stay put for as long as it is safe, Yao added.

“Agriculture has become a hope for [many] because they can grow their own food and survive — even in the besieged areas.” (VOA)

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UNAIDS : World Is At A “Defining Moment” In A Battle Against HIV/AIDS

36.7 million people globally are living with HIV

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Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS, speaks during a news conference, Sept. 25, 2014.
Michel Sidibe, Executive Director of Joint UN Program on HIV/AIDS, speaks during a news conference, Sept. 25, 2014., VOA

The head of UNAIDS says the global community is at a “defining moment” in the effort to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030.

“This midpoint is important for us to reflect on what was not working,” Michel Sidibe told VOA, noting this year marks the halfway point to agreed global targets. “It’s about how to deal with vulnerable communities, fragile society.”

According to 2016 data, 36.7 million people globally are living with HIV. There were nearly 2 million new infections and 1 million AIDS-related deaths.

But the good news is there has been success in expanding access to critical anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs), which reached nearly 21 million people in 2016, leading to a reduction by one-third in global AIDS-related deaths.

Eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission through childbirth and breast-feeding also has become a real possibility by 2030. This was considered a dream just a few years ago, Sidibe said.

“Today, we are seeing after six years that we reduced by almost 61 percent the infection among children — the transmission from mother to child,” Sidibe said. “But we still have 39 percent of babies born with HIV. We want to stop that and we are working very closely with countries who are lagging behind to make sure we have a catch-up plan.”

Scientist Professor Salim Abdool Karim, a South African epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist, and one of the conveners of the march leads people during the 'March for Science' in Durban on April 14, 2018.
Scientist Professor Salim Abdool Karim, a South African epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist, and one of the conveners of the march leads people during the ‘March for Science’ in Durban on April 14, 2018. VOA

Know your HIV status

The UNAIDS executive director says one of the most critical factors in ending the epidemic is making sure people are tested and know their HIV status. This requires lifting taboos and making testing more widely available.

“We need to reduce the price of self-testing; we need to go to community levels, family levels, to reach people where they are,” he said. “The family-centered approach and also community-based approach will become central to what we will do in the future, if we want to reach those millions of people who don’t know their status.”

A recent United Nations report on the AIDS response found that at the end of 2016, some 70 percent of people living with HIV knew their status, and 77 percent of them were accessing ARV therapy. Once on those treatments, 82 percent had suppressed the virus to undetectable levels in their systems. That is not a cure. HIV still remains in their body, but it greatly reduces the likelihood of transmission to a partner.

45-year-old Oscar Tyumre uses an HIV self-testing kit, administered by students from the University of the Witwatersrand in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on March 19, 2018.
45-year-old Oscar Tyumre uses an HIV self-testing kit, administered by students from the University of the Witwatersrand in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on March 19, 2018.
VOA

Uneven progress

While there have been significant successes, progress is uneven, especially for women and adolescent girls. This is the case in sub-Saharan Africa, where females aged 15-24 accounted for 23 percent of new infections in 2016, compared to 11 percent for their male counterparts.

Sidibe says women and young girls face unique challenges, including cultural norms, child marriage and early pregnancies.

“It’s something which we need to address at not just a peripheral level, we need to deal with poverty, to deal with violence against women, to change the laws, to make sure we give them services,” he said.

In order to stop new HIV infections, other vulnerable populations also need a scaled-up response, including intravenous drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men.

Working with at-risk groups and spreading awareness of the importance of condoms and single-needle use for drug addicts are all crucial to the fight against HIV.

Also read:HIV Infected Smokers More likely to die of lung cancer than AIDS, Reveals Indian-origin Researcher

Next month, thousands of experts, activists and people living with HIV/AIDS will meet in Amsterdam for the International AIDS conference. Special attention will be focused on the need to reach key populations, including in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, where epidemics have grown. (IANS)