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UNICEF Special Advocate Daphne Osena-Paez witnesses severe malnutrition in Central Mindanao

Cotabato City, Mindanao, Philippines. 25th August 2011

‘He looks and feels like a newborn, but he’s 7 months old’. This was the reaction of UNICEF Special Advocate for Children, Daphne Osena-Paez, on visiting the Stabilisation Centre in Dinaig Municipal Hospital, Maguindanao, Southern Philippines.

Datu Ali was suffering from severe acute malnutrition and had been brought to the hospital suffering from diarrhea and dehydration.
‘Back in Manila I had been briefed on the situation of severely malnourished children in Central Mindanao, but reality doesn’t hit home until you see it.  When I saw the first baby I almost lost it because it’s a very emotional thing. I was holding Datu Ali’s feet, and they felt like my daughters’ when they were first born,’  said Daphne, visibly affected by the visit.

UNICEF Special Advocate Daphne Oseña-Paez visits Mindanao to bring light to severe acute malnutrition of children under 5 years old and what UNICEF in partnership with government and partners are doing to save them.

As Daphne was observing, Datu Ali was fed the special RUTF (Ready to Use Therapeutic Food) and showed encouraging signs of appetite and liveliness. The doctor in charge of the programme was confident that he would be discharged within 24 hours.
‘The good news is this programme is really working, bringing severely malnourished children back to health in a matter of weeks,’ added Daphne.
Daphne, UNICEF Philippines Special Advocate since 2009, was visiting the government’s community management of acute malnutrition programme, or CMAM, supported by UNICEF and partners Save the Children and ACF.
Whilst at the hospital, another baby, Rashid Mashud, entered the ward, carried in a sling by his mother. He was 3 months old and had been suffering from diarrhea as well as breathing difficulties.

UNICEF Special Advocate for Children Daphne Oseña Paez reassures the mother of Rashid. Copyright UNICEF/Philippines/2011/Arcayan

‘His mother explained to me that although she had breastfed all of her 7 other children, her youngest had not been gaining weight, so after one month, her relatives and husband had told her to go and buy infant formula for the baby. It was then he started to get sick, ‘ explained Daphne, a breastfeeding advocate, who exclusively breastfed all of her 3 daughters. ‘Rashid’s mother instinctively knew that breastfeeding was best for her son because all her other children were healthy. But if a mother doesn’t get support from her husband and other family members, then it can be difficult for her to continue’ Daphne continued.

As Daphne talked to the mother, it was encouraging to see her confidence returning. The hospital staff also counselled mother and husband, explaining to them the superior properties of breastmilk and correct breastfeeding techniques. On leaving the hospital Daphne commented on what she had seen:‘It shocks you that there are children like this in the Philippines. These are images you would expect to see in famine stricken areas, but there’s no famine here. But there is conflict, and there is displacement from natural disasters.

I’ve learnt that malnutrition isn’t just a case of too little food; environmental factors such as clean water and health services are important, as well as the knowledge and behaviour of the mother.’
Day two of the visit to Maguindanao was curtailed due to the renewed threat of fighting in Central Mindanao, so Daphne was restricted to travel within Cotabato City.

‘I am very disappointed to not be able to travel outside and meet more mothers and children, but it has brought home to me the reality of living and working in this environment. The conflict does not only damage lives of the children living here, but it prevents essential services being delivered to them. That is a double hit, and a malnourished child may not have the resilience to survive it,’ said Daphne.
As she was departing for the airport, Daphne added

‘I’m worried that if conflict breaks out again, it may have severe consequences for these already vulnerable children. I just hope that the children who are already in the programme will be able to continue their treatment so they have the strength and resilience to survive difficult times that may be ahead.’

The Government’s CMAM programme has been running since December 2009 in Central Mindanao. UNICEF through its partners Save the Children and ACF is supporting the programme with training and supplies, using its global expertise in community management of acute malnutrition. UNICEF is currently appealing for funds to sustain the programme into 2012.

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