Twin boys Tseveensuren and Tsendsuren, aged two and a half, are all smiles as they don their cool new sunglasses. Tseveensuren, the older of the two, gently puts his arm around his little brother’s shoulders as they pose for the camera.
Their mother Otgonsuren, 37, is a single parent who also takes care of her elderly mother. “My boys are like two peas in a pod”, she says, kissing them both on the cheek. “They like the same things and do everything together. And they’re so energetic and active, they don’t sit still for a moment!”
The family lives in Bayanbulag soum (district) in Bayankhongor province, southern Mongolia. Situated 2,200 metres above sea level among magnificent, snow-capped mountains, Bayanbulag soum has a subarctic climate with mild summers and extremely cold winters.
In winter, Otgonsuren’s family lives in the soum’s main town. For the rest of the year, like other herder families, they move away in search of better pasture for their livestock. Depending on the weather, this is usually in the most remote and inaccessible parts of Mongolia, where herder families and their children are cut off from health and other essential services.
When Otgonsuren gave birth to the twins in 2015, the boys were severely underweight. Tseveensuren weighed 2.4 kg while Tsendsuren, his younger brother, weighed only 1.3 kg. “My boys were so tiny and fragile. I was afraid to hold them”, says Otgonsuren.
Doctors were concerned about the twins’ health and though their growth was closely monitored, the boys often became ill and were in and out of hospital for the first seven months of their lives. As well as being underweight, they also suffered from anaemia.
Then, in the winter of 2016, Bayanbulag soum was hit hard by the dzud, a severe winter condition characterized by extreme cold and compacted layers of snow. That year it affected more than 260,000 people across 17 of Mongolia’s 21 provinces. It became extremely difficult to access food and health services, and when livestock starved as pastures disappeared under the snow, herder families lost their main source of income too.
UNICEF targets children and pregnant and breastfeeding women
In emergencies such as this, young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women are extremely vulnerable and need extra help to prevent undernutrition and guarantee their survival. UNICEF worked closely with the Government, providing nutrition packages for children aged 6 months to 5 years, as well as micronutrient supplements for pregnant and breastfeeding women in affected areas. More than 26,000 boys and girls under 5, and more than 15,000 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers benefitted from multiple micronutrient powder (MNP), screening to identify cases of acute malnutrition, and counselling on nutrition.
Otgonsuren’s twins are among the children who have been receiving MNP ever since. According to the family doctor, both their weight and overall health have improved dramatically, thanks to UNICEF’s interventions.
“I noticed the difference right away”, says Otgonsuren, smiling. “My boys were so weak before. Now they’re much more healthy and strong. The doctors explained that MNP contains many different vitamins and minerals that help children to grow up healthy. They also showed me how to add it to solid food. They gave me a chart to fill in whenever I give my boys MNP. I try not to skip it because I can see that it’s really helped my children.”
Their family doctor often visits to check that the boys are taking their MNP regularly. He has been trained to give advice on nutrition to pregnant women and mothers with young children as part of his routine home visits.
Dr. Gandiimaa, head of the local health centre, also attended a course on MNP and nutrition counselling, organized nationwide by local governments with the support of UNICEF. She is now training her own staff.
“MNP truly shows results. You see malnourished children put on weight, get healthy and rarely get sick”, she says. “Last winter, there were almost no hospitalized children. Children’s immune systems are much stronger. Usually children here get colds frequently. But this winter there were very few cases. Even parents understand how MNP helps their children stay healthier. And when families move away for the summer, they find a way to send someone to get more MNP for their children.
“In emergencies especially, MNP is vital in preventing malnutrition among children in poor households. We wish our health centre had a reserve of MNPs for emergencies like the dzud”, adds Dr. Gandiimaa. “Given the cold climate here, our soum is likely to get a severe winter every year.”
Because of Mongolia’s exposure to natural disasters and the impact of climate change, UNICEF is continuing to support the Government of Mongolia to improve its National Emergency Preparedness and Response strategy for recurrent dzuds to safeguard the health of children and women.