Combating malnutrition in South Sudan, one child at a time

Nutrition Stabilisation Centres provide treatment for children suffering from severe acute malnutrition and medical complications

Robin Giri
One year old Bulo was admitted to the Stabilisation Centre in Malualkon with medical complications
02 September 2021

Maluakon, East Aweil – Bulo Akech is one year old. But you would never know because he’s very thin for a one-year-old. He looks at us with vacuous eyes because he’s tired and sick. Bulo was admitted to the Maluakon nutrition stabilization centre a day earlier because along with severe acute malnutrition, he had also developed medical complications.

His mother Ahok Geng, coos at him gently, as she lifts him and tries to cheer him up. She looks slightly relieved, but the last 24 hours have been traumatic for her. “When Bulo was brought in here yesterday, he had a high fever, severe diarrhoea and was also throwing up, and we were really worried,” says Amou Syolla, the 25-year-old registered nurse who has been attending to little Bulo and has brought him back from the brink.

“We treated him with Amoxicillin and with F-75, which is a therapeutic and fortified solution for treating children with severe acute malnutrition. He doesn’t have a fever today and the bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting have significantly decreased,” says Syolla. Severe acute malnutrition is a very serious condition among children under five. If untreated it can lead to more health complications. It can kill a child as the body doesn’t have the strength and the immunity to fight simple illnesses such as diarrhoeal diseases and pneumonia.

Stabilisation centres like this in Maluakon are the last refuge for children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The centre is a specialised children’s residential treatment centre. There is a medical doctor on call who attends to any serious medical complication, and a registered nurse like Syollo who has received four years of training on treatment of childhood illnesses and treating malnutrition. This centre is equipped with beds and has facilities for providing intravenous solutions for severely dehydrated children, and a community kitchen and a vegetable garden.

Community nutrition volunteers in their uniforms at the Malualkon Stabilisation Centre
Community nutrition volunteers in their uniforms at the Malualkon Stabilisation Centre.

Ahok and his mother will stay at Maluakon stabilisation centre until he recovers completely from any medical complications. While he is recuperating, his mother will be counselled on the correct infant and young child feeding practices, and on the benefits of breastfeeding a child until they turn two years old. Additionally, she will also be oriented by the community nutrition workers on how to prepare nutritious meals for her children to prevent malnutrition.

Food insecurity and malnutrition are at the highest levels in South Sudan since it gained independence 10 years ago. Some 60 per cent of the population is severely food insecure with families unable to feed themselves because of the compounded effects of conflict, displacement, massive flooding, the economic impact of COVID-19 and rising poverty.

In 2021, UNICEF estimates that 313,000 children under five years of age will be affected by severe acute malnutrition in South Sudan. UNICEF’s nutrition programme provides therapeutic foods and lifesaving medicines to treat common childhood illnesses and other medical supplies to 1145 centres nationwide. Coupled with this is the training of thousands of community health and nutrition workers who are trained to detect and treat and refer children to outpatient therapeutic programme centres.

At the outpatient centres, children are weighed and assessed on the degree of malnutrition and mothers are counselled and provided with therapeutic foods for home-based treatment and assigned follow up visits. “When a sick child like Bulo, who is also suffering from malnutrition, is brought to the centre, he or she is immediately referred to the stabilisation centre,” says Syollo, while helping Ahok to make another portion of the F75 solution for little Bulo.

After 24 hours of treatment with amoxycillin and F75, little Bulo is recovering slowly
After 24 hours of treatment with amoxycillin and F75, little Bulo is recovering slowly.

Bulo is lucky. He is expected to make a full recovery. His mother will be oriented on correct feeding practices, thanks to support from USAID, which is one of UNICEF’s largest supporters for the nutrition programme. In addition to procurement of therapeutic foods, medicines and medical supplies, funds from USAID also support the treatment of malnourished children through the stabilization centres.

While treatment is key to fighting acute malnutrition, UNICEF and the Ministry of Health are also focussing on preventing malnutrition. The nutrition programme supports the training of community nutrition workers, who counsel mothers and caregivers on proper feeding and on breastfeeding up to when a child turns two, which will help to prevent malnutrition in the first place.

Before we leave the Maluakon stabilisation centre, we meet with a mothers’ group comprising of community nutrition volunteers, who also take care of the large vegetable garden on the same premises. They grow vegetables, share them with the mothers who temporarily reside with their wards at the centre, and will also teach the mothers how to grow vegetables.

Many young mothers in South Sudan lack knowledge on preparing nutritious meals, with available food sources and vegetables, and the nutrition programme also teaches them to do just that.

UNICEF thanks donors such as the European Union, European Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), UK Aid, USAID, and the Government of Canada for their support of the nutrition programme in South Sudan.