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EASTERN AND SOUTHERN AFRICA feature story for Eritrea

© UNICEF Eritrea/2009/Leshomo

Three-year-old Sara Tesfadet holds her health card, outside the Tsaeda Christian Health Centre, near Asmara. UNICEF and its partners support community mobilization campaigns to promote health screenings and immunizations for all children.

THERAPEUTIC FEEDING STEMS THE TIDAL WAVE OF MALNUTRITION IN ERITREA

ASHA GOLGOL, MAEKEL, Eritrea, 7 May 2009 – Asha Golgol is a small village 10 kilometres south of the Eritrean capital Asmara, home to the modest Kutmo Awlie Health Centre. The day is 6 May, the start of a nationwide vitamin A campaign that is integrating measles and polio vaccinations and the screening of children for malnutrition. There is excitement in the air as nurses go over the finest details of the campaign. Tally sheets and medicines are assembled; boxes of auto-disable syringes and the immunization cold box are hoisted on the table, and the mid upper arm circumference tapes are counted.

On cue is a little boy named Furtum Eyob accompanied by his mother. At four years old, Furtum will receive all four life-saving interventions. First, a nurse carefully wraps a mid-upper arm circumference tape around Furtum’s arm. Sliding to the red zone, the tape shows the child is suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

Furtum is one of many children in Eritrea whose nutritional status has deteriorated in 2009 as a result of drought and the impact of high commodity prices. Luckily, Furtum shows no complications and is referred for community-based therapeutic feeding.

UNICEF is supporting over 120 health facility-based and community-based therapeutic feeding centres nationwide. Data from these sites are already reflecting the effects of the increase of food insecurity in 2009, with reports of the number of children admitted with malnutrition as much as six times higher than during the same period in 2008. The greatest increases in the admission rates to therapeutic feeding centres have taken place in those areas that are most affected by drought.

In 2009, 84 per cent of an estimated 1,681 children with severe acute malnutrition recovered as a result of therapeutic feeding sites in health facilities, while a 71 per cent full recovery rate was observed among the 2,798 children admitted with the same condition admitted to community-based therapeutic feeding sites.

Partnerships and social mobilization for enhanced results
Eritrea is also one of a few countries on track to achieving Millennium Development Goal 4, which is to reduce by two thirds the mortality rate of children under five by 2015.  However, these gains could easily be reversed if there is no concerted action to stem the tidal wave of malnutrition and save a generation of Eritrea’s children.

In response, UNICEF together with partners, especially the Ministry of Health, will continue to support the therapeutic feeding programme. Ongoing targeted supplementary feeding will be also be scaled up in 2010 to benefit 120,000 children aged 6-59 months with moderate or severe acute malnutrition, and for 34,000 pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.  

In addition, intensive community mobilization and information campaigns including with mass media will be carried out with UNICEF support as Eritrea is a highly mountainous country and some settlements are very difficult to reach. The messages will inform communities about the importance of bringing their children to health facilities for the life-saving interventions of vaccination, vitamin A supplementation and screening for malnutrition.

The community health volunteers work tirelessly and without pay to deliver these important messages to parents. With resolve Saba Tewolde, a community health volunteer, explains “I must do this for my country, for our children, our future generation.” Her commitment, as that of other health workers is doubtless - and a quality that is required to save Furtum and a whole of other generations for Eritrea.