Saving a life with a little knowledge, peanuts and milk

UNICEF supported nutrition centres provide knowledge and provisions that save lives

Gabriel Reec
A baby sitting on his mother's lap
30 June 2020

Aleu Yak's parents did not know how easy it was to save him from malnutrition. Despite both working in jobs that specialize in producing food, they were not able to increase his weight. His life hovered in the balance. Yet a simple intervention changed everything within a week.

“I never knew that my child could be treated successfully with therapeutic milk and miguang adoor... I am surprised with the way it changed life of Aleu in just one week… I am very happy he can smile again”, says Nyirou Deng, Aleu Yak's mother. 

'Miguang Adoor' is the Dinka language word for ready-to-use therapeutic food, used by UNICEF and its partners to help children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) to gain weight. Known in colloquial English as peanut paste, it is a tasty, energy-packed paste made from peanuts, oil, sugar, milk powder and vitamin and mineral supplements. The paste does not have to be mixed with water, which avoids the risk of contamination. Ironically Aleu’s mother sells peanuts and his father is a farmer.

Children with SAM have very low weight for their height and suffer from severe muscle wasting. They are nine times more likely to die than a well-nourished child. Aleu's parents were well aware of the danger and had tried everything they could to help their child.

Weighing just 2.1 kg at birth and barely surviving malaria at just one month old, Aleu's weight had not increased by three months old.

“I was desperate. I tried to feed him cow milk to increase his weight”, says Nyirou.

Aleu sitting on his mother's lap smiling
Aleu at home after being discharged from the stabilization centre

She did not know that a baby cannot handle the excess protein, calcium and phosphorous, that are in cow milk and so he developed diarrhoea. His parents rushed him to hospital. He was saved, but his difficulty gaining weight continued.

At six months, they took him to Gabat Nutrition Centre managed by ACF-USA. The UNICEF supported centre identified him as severely malnourished. His weight was just 3.4 kg and he was suffering from severe wasting, dehydration and diarrhoea. He was sent to ACF-USA Stabilization Centre in Malualkon where he was given therapeutic milk and ready-to-use therapeutic food.

Nyirou: “Within one week, Aleu’s weight had reached 4.0 kg, and… he was smiling.”

UNICEF projects that 1.3 million children in South Sudan will suffer from acute malnutrition in 2020, and close to 300,000 of them will be severely affected. To treat them, UNICEF supports more than 1,100 nutrition centres across South Sudan.

But UNICEF also seeks to prevent children like Aleu of being underweight in the first place. Proper pre-natal care and nutrition for his mother could have prevented him being born underweight. Proper sanitation and food access could have seen him gain weight without professional help.

Knowing the reasons for his weight loss and the causes of diarrhoea, Nyirou has decided to take action. She did not have a latrine herself, so she asked for help.

“I asked my neighbor, who has a latrine, to share it with us.” 

And she is now following the nutritional advice given at the Gabat Nutrition Centre.

The current COVID-19 outbreak has complicated the treatment of children suffering from malnutrition. Parents who visit the Gabat Nutrition Centre to receive the nutritional supplies for their children, must now wash their hands with soap and water at the entrance of the centre. And they always need to keep 2 metres distance from others  to reduce the risk of infection transmission. Flyers and posters are displayed on the walls to remind patients of COVID-19 preventive measures.

To secure social distancing, the centre has also limited the visitors. Only children suffering from edema and children with a mid-upper arm circumference of less than 12.5 cm, indicating they are in a state of severe acute malnutrition are accepted in the centre. 

A social mobilizer is giving COVID-10 messages
A social mobilizer is giving COVID-10 messages to Aleu's mother.

Meanwhile social mobilizers visit communities and share protective messages to help households prevent COVID-19 infections. Mothers are trained on how to use mid-upper arm circumference tape and self-refer their child to the nutrition centre if the child’s mid-upper arm circumference measures less than 12.5cm.

Aleu is now out of trouble. He laughs and is able to play with his siblings. His mother, who was previously confined at home by his sickness, has resumed her work at the market.

“I now tell other mothers how to prevent weight loss in babies,” Nyirou proudly says.

Severe malnutrition is a terrible experience for children. But with simple knowledge given to the right people, it can be prevented, and a simple treatment can reverse it. More than 90 per cent of cases of severe malnutrition that are treated, survive. UNICEF is determined to make malnutrition disappear in South Sudan.


UNICEF's nutrition programmes are generously supported by ECHO, DFID and USAID