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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

UNICEF and partners work to break the cycle of malnutrition and disease in DR Congo

By Cornelia Walther

KALEMIE, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 5 August 2011 – For the people of Kalemie, living on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, water from the lake is a lifeline – but also poses dangers, especially to children.

UNICEF's Claude Colart reports on efforts in DR Congo to battle malnutrition and food insecurity.  Watch in RealPlayer


Every day, women and children come here to collect water for cooking and drinking. Others come to wash. The lake serves as a water-point, latrine, bathroom and playground.

“Yes, it is possible to drink this water. We use it for everything,” says Olivier, 8, with a serious nod. He and his family live within walking distance of the lake. Each morning and evening, he helps his mother and sisters fetch water from it.

Need for water treatment

But untreated, the lake’s water can cause diarrhoea and other diseases. In view of this danger, UNICEF and several other organizations have come together to set up water chlorination points along the shore.

© UNICEF DR Congo/2011/Walther
A community volunteer uses chlorine to treat the water that Olivier, 8, has fetched for his family in Kalemie, DR Congo.

The aim is to ensure that every water container fetched from the lake contains some drops of chlorine. By killing bacteria and parasites, chlorination reduces the prevalence of diarrhoeal diseases and thus represents one step in the fight for child survival.

The next step is related to children’s daily diet. Despite DR Congo’s lush landscape, its people eat mostly staple foods such as manioc, which are poor in essential vitamins. This weakens the immune system – particularly in young children – which, in turn, results in reduced resistance against infections and diseases.

Lowered resistance to disease, combined with malnutrition, is a major cause of child deaths.

Lack of nutrients

“Many mothers do not know about the need for protein or vitamins when cooking for their family,” says DR Congo Nutrition Manager Simeon Nanama. “We found that the local diet is often lacking essential micronutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins that are required for proper growth and development of children.”

© UNICEF DR Congo/2011/Walther
In the therapeutic feeding centre at a hospital in Kalemie, DR Congo, a severely malnourished children waits for treatment.

An adult may be able to manage without some of these nutrients, but they are essential for the growth and development of infants and young children, adds Mr. Nanama. For them, breast milk is the best source of nutrition, but mothers don’t always view it favourably.

“Even though breastfeeding is free and appropriate for infants,” says Mr. Nanama, “its widespread practice is hampered by several factors, including traditional beliefs.”

Fragile health system

In DR Congo, the omnipresent risk of disease and widespread lack knowledge about hygiene and nutrition create a dangerous environment for children. It is aggravated by the country’s fragile health system, which has insufficient medical staff, infrastructure and equipment.

The situation in Kalemie illustrates the combined impact of these factors. Since the beginning of the year, the area has seen cases of polio, cholera and measles.

© UNICEF DR Congo/2011/Walther
Mothers in DR Congo are sensitized on the need for a balanced diet and the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for infants and young children.

And the struggle for good nutrition is even more difficult in view of ever-increasing food prices. “Food has become very expensive, especially fish,” says Mariam Madileme, 45, who has five mouths to feed in her household. “I know that my children need good food to grow up and be strong, but it is getting difficult to buy enough of it.”

Ensuring ‘a healthy life’

A vicious cycle of malnutrition, lowered immunity, inadequate health services and food insecurity is placing the survival and future development Kalemie’s children at risk.

“Even if a child overcomes the dangers of childhood, a lack of nutrients during his first years of life can never be recovered,” explains UNICEF Representative in DR Congo Pierrette Vu Thi. “Physical and mental development will be impaired forever, reducing performance in school and work, and resistance to diseases. We must ensure that every child gets the chance to a healthy life.”



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