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Treating child malnutrition as Zimbabwe grapples with raging inflation

UNICEF Image: Zimbabwe
© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2008
Two-year-old Appreciate and his mother Revai Ndoro at Harare Central Hospital, where the child was diagnosed as suffering from a severe malnutrition syndrome known as kwashiorkor.

By Tapuwa Mutseyekwa & Tsitsi Singizi

HARARE, Zimbabwe, 28 October 2008 – Two-year-old Appreciate lies in a bed at the Harare Central Hospital. At just under 10 kg, he shows many signs of severe malnutrition: a swollen stomach, dry scaly skin and hollow, sunken eyes.

Luckily, his mother, Revai Ndoro, was quick to see the pending danger and took him to the hospital. He was immediately referred to the hospital’s therapeutic feeding centre, where he was diagnosed as suffering from the syndrome known as kwashiorkor – characterized by skin and hair changes and oedema.

“He has not been growing at all,” said his mother. “For the last three days, he was bedridden, moaning in pain and breathing heavily.”

Therapeutic feeding centres

Harare Central Hospital is the site of one of approximately 70 therapeutic feeding centres supported by UNICEF in Zimbabwe. Each day, about 15 children are admitted to the hospital with severe malnutrition.

An estimated 50,000 children in Zimbabwe are severely underweight.

With UNICEF support, the centre has responded to the high influx of patients coming in mainly with the symptoms of kwashiorkor or severe wasting known as marasmus. At the centre, treatment of malnutrition begins with observation and weighing. For severe cases, a therapeutic milk called F75 is given to the child at three-hour intervals.

With the help of F75, malnourished children can gain approximately two kg in three to four days, at which point they are often able to return home. Other children go home with a two-week supply of  Plumpy'nut, a ready-to-use nutritional paste.

© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2008/ Pirrozzi
Melissa Jambo is suffering from a severe case of malnutrition. She is now on the path to recovery with the help of Plumpy’nut, a ready-to-eat nutritional paste.

The centre also offers daily lessons on proper nutrition, hygiene and other aspects of child care to parents and guardians to help ensure that the child will continue to thrive.

Support for improved treatment

Since 2002, UNICEF has supported improved treatment methodologies for malnutrition in Zimbabwe’s hospitals as a way of reducing child mortality.

“Malnutrition can be cured, with very simple and cost effective measures,” said UNICEF Representative in Zimbabwe Roeland Monasch. “Sadly, many children die due to lack of proper treatment. Such loss of life is unacceptable. At UNICEF, we are working to reverse this.”

For Appreciate, the three days he spent in the feeding centre were life-saving. Unfortunately, neither the mother nor the father is employed, so it will remain a challenge for the two parents to provide food and ensure that Appreciate remains on the path to recovery. 

Entering the ‘lean season’

As Zimbabwe enters the height of the lean season, when food stocks run low before the next harvest, the danger of a malnutrition crisis does not seem far away. This is a daunting proposition for the children of a country already in a humanitarian crisis. With raging inflation and a continued shortage of basic food commodities, cases of malnutrition in children between six months and 12 years of age are becoming more apparent in Zimbabwe. 
“Zimbabwean children cannot afford a looming malnutrition threat in addition to the immense challenges they already face every day,” said Mr. Monasch. “It is a very serious and real concern as families grapple to feed their families.”

This week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated the United Nations’ willingness to support Zimbabwe throughout this delicate transition process, and to work with regional leaders and the international community to provide immediate relief to those at risk.

“Zimbabwe’s children deserve better. They deserve to go to school, to drink clean water, to access quality heath care and to go to bed without feeling hungry,” said Mr. Monasch. “Without humanitarian assistance, the fate of these children will remain largely unchanged.”




24 October 2008: UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink discusses malnutrition among children in Zimbabwe.
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