A fighting chance for baby Mahdi
Surviving poverty, floods and malnutrition in Bangladesh
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Baby Mahdi’s problems started long before he was born in a village on the banks of the Rakti River in northeastern Bangladesh. His mother Ismat Ara came from a poor family and her fate was already decided: her parents arranged her marriage and she dropped out of school.
Baby Mahdi’s family relies on daily wages from his father Mohammad Kawser, whenever and wherever he can find work. Every day, Mohammad Kawser goes around looking for work either in the rice fields during harvest season or on construction and sand extraction sites.
On a good day he makes 200 to 300 taka (about $2 to $3) and on a bad day there is nothing to bring home. If he cannot find work, there is no food for the small family.
They mostly eat rice and vegetables, and they miss out on protein from fish, eggs and meat which they can rarely afford.
A relentless cycle
Mahdi’s mother was pregnant at barely 18, with little to sustain her and her unborn baby as the family struggled to make ends meet. Since birth, Mahdi has been in frail health.
“I could not produce enough breast milk for him. He cried and fussed a lot and was often sick. We knew that he was not getting enough milk but we were helpless," Ismat Ara explains.
A few months after Mahdi was born, floods hit their village. Stranded in the floodwaters, Mohammad Kawser and Ismat Ara kept their baby alive as they watched what little they had disappear with the water. They piled what they could into a makeshift ladder, made it to the roof and waited.
The water eventually receded after a week and by then, Mahdi was too weak to even cry.
“I could not find work after the flood. Only Allah knows how we survived," says Mohammad Kawser.
Mahdi's health worsened. Under a UNICEF-supported intervention in response to the floods in Sylhet, community health workers went around the village assessing and weighing children under five years of age. On such a visit, a community health worker assessed Mahdi at home and informed his parents that their little one was severely malnourished and needed urgent care.
They traveled through muddy roads and by boat to Tahirpur hospital where Mahdi’s severe acute malnutrition was confirmed. He was fed therapeutic milk called F-75 and F-100, and which is used to treat children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, and which also helps to restore their appetite. F-75 and F-100 milk are part of a package of supplies that UNICEF provides to health facilities to treat malnourished children, in collaboration with the Government of Bangladesh and other partners.
A race to save lives
Millions of children in Bangladesh do not get enough nutrients and the impact can be long-lasting. It can lead to impaired growth and development known as stunting.
The damage done to a child’s body and brain by stunting cannot be reversed. It drags down performance at school and later at work, and puts children at a higher risk of dying from infectious diseases. While stunting is happening to about 4.4 million children right now, there’s the lifelong burden among adults still stunted from childhood.
Poor diets can also cause severe thinness or wasting. About 400,000 children right now are suffering from wasting. If not treated, wasting can be fatal.
Although stunting and wasting have declined over the years, more needs to be done to end malnutrition.
Children like Mahdi, born to the poorest families and with mothers who have dropped out of school, are more likely to suffer from stunting and wasting. When disasters like floods strike, the risk significantly increases.
Bangladesh lacks a systematic way of routinely assessing children to detect malnutrition early at community level because there aren’t enough community health workers. Door-to-door growth monitoring and screening services are only provided during emergencies, when communities are cut off or cannot access regular health services.
“Beyond prevention, UNICEF works with a wide range of partners to ensure that life-saving therapeutic milk, medicines and other supplies are available for malnourished children. Early detection is critical to get children the help they need,” says Kazi Dil Afroza Islam who leads UNICEF’s field office in Sylhet.
A second chance
Today baby Mahdi is fully recovered and has gained critical weight.
"We did not know about this special milk. It’s a blessing to be able to see our son smiling again,” says Mohammad Kawser.
But the future is still uncertain. Mohammad Kawser worries that his son will get sick again because food is becoming more expensive.
“Everything costs more now. Before, I could get a kilogram of rice for just 50 taka (about half a dollar). Now, it costs more so I have to buy less that what we need.”
Mohammad Kawser continues to look for work every day while Ismat Ara is at home taking care of baby Mahdi.
“My son is the light of our life,” says Mohammad Kawser.