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Diarrhoea epidemic leads to threat of severe malnutrition in Botswana

Image de l'UNICEF
© UNICEF Botswana/2006/Puso
Children wait with their mothers to get treatment for diarrhoea at Tutume Primary Hospital in Gaborone, Botswana.

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By Kutloano Leshomo

GABORONE, Botswana, 2 May 2006 – Here in the capital of Botswana, where hundreds of children have already died during a diarrhoea epidemic this year, hundreds more are now severely malnourished.

“Cases of diarrhoea have begun to go down drastically, perhaps due to health talks that we have been giving to mothers,” said UNICEF Social Mobilization Officer Mercy Puso. “But the emergency now is malnutrition. We have to be on the lookout for it.”

In one case, for example, a UNICEF team discovered a severely malnourished young girl, 18-month-old Kuda Makgala, while they were visiting homes to talk to mothers about hygienic health habits. They immediately referred her to hospital.

Highest prevalence in babies

Problems began with the heavy rainfall across Botswana at the start of 2006. Initially, the rain was celebrated; it heralded a potential bumper year for a people reliant on a successful harvest. However, in Gaborone, the celebrations were short-lived. Dirty puddles and flooding combined with poor sanitation and hygiene made fertile ground for the spread of illness.

From mid-January, there were reports of an increase in the number of diarrhoea cases. Mothers began to panic and thronged health centres or consulted with traditional healers. Every week, the numbers continued to soar.

Image de l'UNICEF
© UNICEF Botswana/2006/Puso
Women attend a hygiene workshop during a diarrhoea epidemic in that killed hundreds of children in Gaborone, Botswana.

By February, it had become evident that the diarrhoea outbreak was an epidemic. The Ministry of Health began to seek assistance from development partners, including UNICEF, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. 

By mid-April, there were almost 24,000 cases of diarrhoea and 486 deaths registered with the health authorities. The majority of patients were children under the age of five, with the highest prevalence in babies under 12 months.

Emergency response

As the epidemic continued and prolonged sickness in many infants either went untreated or was treated inadequately, more and more children were becoming severely malnourished. An estimated 450 to 500 children needed urgent therapeutic feeding. Health facilities also recorded a high rate of growth failure in children even prior to the diarrhoea outbreak, indicating poor nutritional status before the epidemic.

At the request of the Ministry of Health, UNICEF responded swiftly to this emergency by airlifting supplies for combating malnutrition as well as providing technical expertise to help people in the affected districts.

Unfortunately, Kuda Makgala did not live to benefit from the emergency response. She passed away a day after being admitted to hospital.

Rachel Bonham Carter contributed to this story.