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Community volunteers fight undernutrition in northern Cameroon

© UNICEF/2009/Sweeting
At the UNICEF-supported health centre in Tchontchi village, northern Cameroon, Marie Maboule (right) feeds vitamin-fortified, high-energy and protein-rich therapeutic food to one of her young twin daughters, while community health volunteer Sara Djanatou holds Ms. Maboule’s other twin.

By John Nkuo

TCHONTCHI, Cameroon, 13 November 2009 – Almost 5 kilos underweight and too undernourished to walk, two-year-old twins Massing Esther and Tito Anna have to be carried everywhere they go in their home village of Tchontchi, in northern Cameroon.

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Their mother, Marie Maboule, 42, does the carrying, despite being undernourished herself. Ms. Maboule has a total of 12 children, all of whom struggle from lack of nutrition. The family lacks a regular income, so providing nutritious meals on a daily basis is a difficult task.

“I prepare niri,” Ms. Maboule says, referring to the local staple of corn or millet flour boiled in water. “Vegetables are few and far between, and the family cannot afford to eat meat,” she adds.

It has been a difficult year, despite the mother’s efforts to cultivate crops for her family: “The crops we harvested this year are not enough to feed a family of 12,” she says. “I find it very difficult to give my family two meals a day.”

Nutrition education initiative

Undernutrition is one of the biggest killers of children in Cameroon. The northern region is particularly hard hit; since July 2009, some 155 cases of severe acute malnutrition in children have been registered at the local health centre in Tchontchi alone.

In response, UNICEF is supporting an initiative in the region that is bringing more than 400 community health volunteers to area households to educate families about nutrition.

Sara Djanatou is one such community volunteer in Tchontchi. She travels up to 15 kilometres every day to spread key messages on good nutrition.

“A lot of the people in this area, particularly women, are illiterate,” she says. “The size of families here is also very high. So this, coupled with poverty, means that many families can’t afford to have two meals a day.”

Training for doctors and nurses

In Ms. Maboule’s house, Ms. Djanatou overcomes these obstacles by producing a poster with pictures of foods such as eggs, fruit and highly nutritious vegetables. She points to the pictures, giving the family guidance on how to cook a balanced meal within their financial means.

© UNICEF/2009/Sweeting
In Tchontchi village, northern Cameroon, Marie Maboule’s five-year-old daughter Deborah Morzone helps her feed niri (corn or millet flour mixed in boiled water) to Tito Anna, one of Ms. Maboule’s undernourished twins.

The community volunteers also encourage villagers to visit the local UNICEF-supported health centre, which is operated in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. At the centre, nurses examine children thoroughly by checking their weight and height. Bowls of fortified food – made from a nutritious mixture of corn, soya bean, sugar and oil – are distributed to those who are underweight.

Undernourished children with medical complications are referred to the nearby Guider District Hospital, where more than a dozen UNICEF-trained nurses and doctors work to save their lives through a range of interventions.

Signs of effectiveness
The hospital staff has already noticed an increase in the number of children they’ve managed to bring back to good health.

“Before the UNICEF programme started in 2009, people did not have access to the special type of food needed to treat malnutrition,” recalls Dr. Nana Pamela, a paediatrician at Guider. “Now they have access to therapeutic milk through the hospital, as well as ready-to-use therapeutic food, both at the health centres and the hospital.”

The programme is showing early signs of its effectiveness. No deaths from undernourishment were recorded in October 2009, for example, compared to the seven recorded in July and August.

“In this northern region, we have 100,000 malnourished children with rapid weight loss,” says UNICEF Cameroon Nutrition Specialist Denis Garnier. “The programme, which covers 11 out of the 41 districts here, has made it possible to treat 5,000 to 10,000 children. We are looking for funds to scale up the programme.”




1 November 2009: UNICEF’s Salma Zulfiqar reports on community efforts to fight malnutrition in northern Cameroon.
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