BEIRUT, Feb 25 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrian children who have fled to neighbouring Lebanon to escape their country's civil war are increasingly at risk of dying from malnutrition, international aid organizations said in a report on Tuesday.
The assessment conducted by the United Nations children's fund UNICEF and other agencies found that about 10,000 Syrians under five years old are suffering from acute malnutrition, including around 1,800 who are at risk of dying and require immediate treatment to survive.
The study was based on a sample of about 9,000 refugees across Lebanon, where more than 935,000 Syrians have registered with the U.N. since Syria's conflict began in 2011 - swelling the existing population of 4 million.
UNICEF warned that the prevalence of malnutrition in some parts of Lebanon had almost doubled since 2012 and could deteriorate further.
Annamaria Laurini, the UNICEF representative in Lebanon, called malnutrition "a new, silent threat among refugees in Lebanon" and said it was linked to poor hygiene, unsafe drinking water, diseases, lack of immunization and improper feeding practices of young children.
"We are dealing with a population that is every day more poor, which means less access to food and adequate nutrition," she said. "That's why we need to be vigilant."
With a weak government and threadbare national infrastructure even before the Syrian crisis erupted almost three years ago, Lebanon is struggling to support the refugees, which the World Bank estimates will cost around $2.6 billion over three years.
Western countries have been reluctant to assist by giving money directly to Lebanon's government, which includes ministers from the military and political movement Hezbollah - designated a terrorist organisation by Washington and its allies.
Malnutrition has also become a growing threat to civilians still living in Syria, where fighting and sieges have prevented residents in eastern provinces and towns near the capital from accessing food for weeks or even months. (ID:nL6N0KO15G)
There are no official camps for Syrians displaced to Lebanon, so most crowd into the homes of relatives or friends or live in unfinished buildings or informal tented settlements.
More than 1,000 of the most severe cases of malnutrition were identified among the hundreds of makeshift shelters in the Bekaa valley along the border with Syria, which hosts more than 300,000 refugees, the largest concentration in the country.
Zeroual Azzeddine, a UNICEF nutritionist, said that despite a developed healthcare system, Lebanon is poorly positioned to deal with a wave of malnutrition because the condition was virtually nonexistent before the crisis in Syria began.
He said UNICEF was cooperating with the ministry of health and other aid agencies to expand early screening and management of malnutrition. UNICEF has treated 400 cases so far.
"There is a need to prepare for a crisis," said Azzeddine. (Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Catherine Evans)