Malnutrition – the silent killer of Liberia’s potential – can be reversed with the right interventions.
Malnutrition – in all its forms – continues to thwart human potential and economic growth in Liberia. But one of the most worrying types is stunting.
One in three children under the age of 5 are stunted or too short for their age, as a result of not getting nutritious food over a long period of time, and frequent bouts of illness. This puts Liberia on the list of the 21 countries with the highest stunting levels in the world.
Stunting can negatively affect a child’s brain function, organ development, and immune system, which can result in poor achievement at school, decreased productivity and earnings in adult life, greater risk of developing obesity and diabetes later in life, and ultimately, diminished chances of escaping the cycle of poverty.
Micronutrient deficiencies are also common, with 13 per cent of young children lacking in Vitamin A, an essential vitamin that supports healthy immunity and eyesight. More than half of all children under 5 and close to 40 per cent of women are anaemic, putting further strain on human productivity.
Malnourished children have a higher risk of death from common childhood illness such as diarrhoea, pneumonia, and malaria. According to the World Health Organization, 45 per cent of deaths among children under the age of 5 are linked to malnutrition.
The Liberian government is committed to providing a comprehensive package of nutrition services but more needs to be done.
Policies, guidelines and laws on nutrition need to be updated. Only half of all health facilities routinely provide nutrition services and 40 per cent of the population has limited access to health care.
In addition, exclusive breastfeeding and other childcare practices need to be improved to protect children from infection and disease.
Malnourished children have a higher risk of death from common childhood illness such as diarrhoea, pneumonia, and malaria.
UNICEF support to the solution
Optimizing nutrition early in life – especially during a woman’s pregnancy and the first two years of a child’s life – ensures the best possible start in life, with long-term benefits. To do this, UNICEF works with the Government of Liberia on different fronts.
At the national level, UNICEF is helping to review and update relevant nutrition policies, guidelines and strategies. The nutrition information system has been strengthened to track progress towards national nutrition targets, and efforts are ongoing to increase funding for nutrition programmes.
To address the high stunting rates in the country, UNICEF is supporting the government to increase the coverage of nutrition services or ‘Direct Nutrition Interventions’ (DNIs).
DNIs include interventions such as the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding, food fortification, treatment of severe acute malnutrition, hand washing for disease prevention, de-worming, micronutrient supplementation and pre-pregnancy and adolescent nutrition.
In addition, UNICEF encourages other government sectors such as agriculture, water and sanitation and education to implement nutrition-sensitive interventions that address the underlying causes of malnutrition.
At the community level, UNICEF works with radio stations and community health assistants to raise public awareness, improve infant and young child feeding practices and care among parents and caregivers, and encourage families to use nutrition services where available.