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An unusual partnership helps tackle child malnutrition in Darfur

© UNICEF Sudan/2011/IKogali
Abu Badriya, a traditional healer, near UNICEF-supported nutrition centre in North Darfur.

By Issraa El-Kogali and Priyanka Khanna

El Fasher (North Darfur State), January 2012 -- Abu Badriya is a soft-spoken man with a face that lights up when he smiles. A traditional healer or Faki by profession, he has become an unusual but important partner in the fight against child malnutrition in this part of Darfur.

Abu Badriya stands tall and wears his turban and Djallabia (traditional Sudanese attire) with grace. But like many here, he bears scars suffered during the years of conflict in Darfur. A bullet wound to his right leg left him with a permanent limp and ongoing pain which -- finding that normal medication was of little help -- he relieves using the power of prayer and meditation.
This background, and his reputation as a healer, means many people turn to Abu Badriya for help with their own troubles.  Parents sometimes bring their sick children to him for traditional healing called ruqaya.
Yet Abu Badriya understands that in many cases, especially involving children, conventional medical treatment must be used as well.  And when it comes to dealing with the potentially fatal impact of malnutrition among children, he has no hesitation in referring families to the local Therapeutic Feeding Centre (TFC), which is supported by UNICEF.

That was what he did when Mahasin Ali, a recent returnee from Libya, came to him about her two boys, Suleyman, aged three, and one-year-old Sami. Though visibly undernourished, the hospital in El Fasher hospital had not admitted them saying that they only needed time to adjust to the change in environment and food. A nurse also suggested that the prayers of a Faki would soothe the young children and help settle them into their new life in Darfur.
But when he saw the boys, Abu Badriya knew immediately that they needed urgent treatment.
“I could see how weak and thin they were,” he recalls. “I realized that unless they were treated quickly, their lives would be in danger.”

© UNICEF Sudan/2011/IIKogali
Mahasin Ali, a recent returnee from Libya, with her two sons, Suleyman, and Sami on the day of their arrival at the UNICEF-supported nutrition centre.

As soon as they arrived at the TFC, the children were admitted and put on a special milk formulation that is easily digested by malnourished children. After that, they were fed with a specially formulated peanut paste -- known as Plumpy Nut -- which contains all the vitamins and other essential nutrients that the two boys needed to recover. After just four days of treatment, Suleyman and Sami’s health had improved dramatically.
For UNICEF’s head of nutrition, Susan Lillicrap, the story carries important lessons about the role played by the community to ensure no child is missed.

“The sooner you get to a child the better the results. And in a long-standing conflict-affected place like Darfur, one day late could be too late,” she says.

This message has yet to reach many families. Of 93,000 children estimated to be suffering from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition in North Darfur, only about 14 per cent are being treated in the 42 UNICEF-supported TFCs across the State.

“We are working with a wide range of partners. Mothers-in-laws, Fakis and religious leaders and anyone who has a say in society is our ally,” says Susan, adding: “Ensuring a healthy start in life for every child can break the cycle of poverty. And people like Abu Badriya are helping us do just that.”

UNICEF’s nutrition programme in Sudan is supported by donors like the Central Emergency Response Fund; the Common Humanitarian Fund; the European Commission Humanitarian Aid; Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance; the governments of Denmark, Japan and Spain; and UNICEF National Committees like Dutch and UK.





Malnutrition in Darfur: Ahmad’s story

Weak and almost skeletal, seven-month-old Ahmad was near starvation when he was brought to a UNICEF-supported Therapeutic Feeding Centre (TFC) in a North Darfur camp for Internally Displaced People.

His mother, Fiteyn, 17, had given birth to him out of wedlock and both were severally malnourished.  The young mother had placed a leather bound ornament known as a hijabat, made by a traditional healer, around Ahmad’s neck. She hoped the ornament would heal her child from hunger and dehydration.

At first Ahmad’s health seemed to be improving. But his condition worsened rapidly when he was struck by diarrhea -- a common killer of young children. He was transferred from the TFC to the nearest hospital but was too weak to respond to rehydration treatment.  Ahmad died the next day.

Ahmad is one of many children who die in Sudan every day because of severe dehydration caused by diarrheal diseases and malnutrition.
Of 93,000 children estimated to be suffering from life-threatening severe acute malnutrition in North Darfur, only about 14 per cent are being treated in the 42 UNICEF-supported TFCs across the State.


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