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In drought-stricken Madagascar, community health agents save lives

© UNICEF Madagascar/2010/Andriamasinoro
Fitahantsoa and his mother Fidisoa leave the Kirimosa health centre, in Magagascar’s Androy region, where the child was admitted with severe acute malnutrition.

ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar, 26 May 2010 – Thousands of children were treated for severe acute malnutrition last year in southern Madagascar, where lack of rain and crop failures continue to threaten food security. Across the affected zone, more than 230,000 children under five years of age remain at risk of malnutrition. 

Despite the overwhelming numbers, however, several special programmes supported by UNICEF and European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO) are making strides in addressing severe acute malnutrition in Madagascar. The programmes aim to identify and treat severe cases earlier – giving children a better chance of survivial.

Community screenings

Fidisoa, 32, said she was frightened when her 10-month-old son Fitahantsoa fell ill. “He was so worn out he didn’t even have enough energy to eat,” she said. “My husband and I have to feed eight children, but don’t have anything to eat in the house. This is the reason why our child ended up in this state.”

Fitahantsoa was admitted to the Kirimosa health centre in Madagascar’s Androy region. His diagnosis, like that of many children in the south of this island country, was severe acute malnutrition.

Zéavine Heltine, the community health agent who first screened Fitahantsoa near his home, said the urgency of his condition was obvious. “I immediately decided to take him to the closest health centre, eight kilometres away from our village,” she said.

More  than 7,000 community health agents like Ms. Heltine have been trained by UNICEF in the past year. By conducting regular nutrition screenings at the community level – and, in cases such as Fitahantsoa’s, referring sick children to health centres for treatment – they have helped to diagnose and treat thousands of children.

© UNICEF Madagascar/2010/Andriamasinoro
Zéavine Heltine, a community health agent in Madagascar’s Androy region, weighs a baby as part of a regular malnutrition screening.

A success story

The community-level trainings are supported by ECHO, which also helps to provide up-to-date equipment to local health agents. “The support brought by ECHO permitted us to maintain an early detection system, to continue our fight against severe malnutrition and to respond in a timely fashion,” said UNICEF Representative in Madagascar Bruno Maes.

Fitahantsoa, whose severe acute malnutrition was detected early, became a success story. After eight months of treatment he was released from the health centre and is returning home. Despite fears that crop failures will continue, his mother finally feels relief.

For Ms. Heltine, the community health agent who first screened Fitahantsoa, there is a deep sense of satisfaction that she is helping her own community.

“Within a few months, I was able to save the life of 20 children,” she said. “Today they are all out of danger, and I personally follow up on their health.... I am proud of the work I do.”



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