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Ready-to-use therapeutic food helps save children’s lives in southern Ethiopia

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2008/Getachew
A malnourished child at the Yirba Health Centre in southern Ethiopia receives a taste of Plumpy’nut from health extension workers.

By Indrias Getachew

BORICHA, Ethiopia, 28 May 2009 – Every week, mothers from the drought-affected villages of Ethiopia’s Boricha district bring their children to be weighed and measured at the Yirba Health Centre.

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Health extension workers weigh and measure the mid-upper arm circumference, or MUAC, of the children – after which they will receive their weekly ration of the ready-to-use therapeutic food Plumpy’nut, supplied by UNICEF with the support of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department, also known as ECHO.

Effective treatment
Eleven-month-old Mare has come to Yirba with his mother, Ikashe. This is only his second visit, but the treatment is already having a marked impact on his condition.

“You can see that he likes the food very much,” says Ikashe. “His appetite has improved and he is eating well.”

While his MUAC is still in the red, indicating that he remains severely malnourished, his weight has increased from 5.7 to 6 kg after a seven-day course of Plumpy’nut.

One of the fortunate
Mare is fortunate. Severe malnutrition increases a child’s risk of death by as much as 10 times, according to The Lancet. But a child can escape this fate if properly treated with therapeutic food.

For baby Mare, the journey to recovery is well under way. If there are no complications, he should return to normal in about one month.

“The boy’s appetite has improved,” says UNICEF Nutrition Officer Mesfin Tekele. “He is now eating well. The data shows that his situation is improving.”

‘Hunger season’ kicks in
Ikashe and Mare live off a small plot of land, which Ikashe uses to grow maize and root crops such as sweet potato, and enset, an endemic food made from the root of the ‘false banana’ plant. Ikashe’s crop yield in 2008 was minimal. She has been dependent on food aid to feed her family.

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2008/Getachew
Ikashe Antera and her 11-month-old baby Mare at the Yirba Health Centre in southern Ethiopia.

Now, parts of southern Ethiopia are again facing the impact of delayed rains and the poor performance of the coffee crop, the earnings from which families would have been used to buy food on the market.

The loss in agricultural productivity, combined with higher food prices, is beginning to take its toll on children. Reports indicate rising levels of severe malnutrition as the ‘hunger season’ before the main harvest in September kicks in.

Help from ECHO
In 2008, ECHO provided €3.3 million towards UNICEF’s emergency nutrition response in Ethiopia. The funds helped purchase 697 tonnes of Plumpy’nut for approximately 70,000 children in the southern part of the country.

Plumpy’nut is popular with small children such as Mare because it tastes good, like a sweeter version of peanut butter. The energy-rich paste contains the right balance of proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals to treat severe malnutrition. It can even be administered at home, as long as children do not have additional medical complications or serious illness.

This year, UNICEF has appealed for $36 million to address overall emergency requirements in Ethiopia – including health, water, sanitation, hygiene, education and child protection – with $20 million needed for the nutrition response alone.




April 2009: UNICEF’s Indrias Getachew reports on how ECHO, UNICEF and their partners in Ethiopia are saving lives by providing Plumpy’nut to undernourished children.
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