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Combating child malnutrition in Sudan

UNICEF Sudan/2012/SIngram
© UNICEF Sudan/2012/SIngram
Eight-month-old Maha is weighed at Karawy therapeutic feeding centre, Nyala, Darfur, where children suffering from severe acute malnutrition are brought under a UNICEF-promoted programme.

By Simon Ingram

Nyala (South Darfur), 25 February 2012 -- Getting a medical check-up is never the most pleasant experience, and one year old Yasmine is plainly not enjoying hers. She wails miserably as she is hoisted into a blue canvas harness and then suspended in mid-air for a few seconds while a nurse reads her weight on the scale above her head.

Her colleague nods approvingly as she makes note of Yasmine’s new weight: 5.5 kilograms may be light for a child her age but it’s a big improvement on the day, just three months ago, when Yasmine was first brought to this therapeutic feeding centre on the southern outskirts of Nyala.

On that occasion, Yasmine was weakened by diarrhea and vomiting, and visibly malnourished. Her mother, 22 year old Halima Osman, was in a panic.

“I didn’t know what to do, but one of my neighbours told me I should come to this place,” recalls Halima. “They gave me some medicine and she started to improve.”

The “medicine” is actually a concoction known as Ready-to-Use Therapeutic food (RUTF). It delivers a high-energy nutritional “punch” in a form that most young children enjoy. Certainly, Yasmine has developed a fondness for it: “She eats two and a half packets a day,” says Halima approvingly, as the child happily devours mouthful after mouthful.

UNICEF Sudan/2012/Ingram
© UNICEF Sudan/2012/SIngram
One-year-old Musa Jamal Musa is held by his sister, Intisar, as he eats Plumpy Nut, a high-energy nutritional paste (used to treat severe acute malnutrition) at Karawy therapeutic feeding centre, Nyala, Darfur.

RUTF is part of a UNICEF-supported programme to tackle child malnutrition that treated over 40,000 cases in Darfur last year. Its importance will be all the greater if – as the director of the feeding centre, Dr Awatif Abdul Aziz, believes – the number of malnourished children needing treatment rises in the months ahead.

“When the weather is hotter, and when food supplies traditionally run short in many communities, then we will start to see more malnourished children being brought in,” says Dr Abdul Aziz.

Malnutrition among young children in Darfur is only one aspect of a broader and longstanding challenge in Sudan. Each year, an estimated 500,000 Sudanese children suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Yet lifesaving interventions reach less than 15 per cent of that number. Each year, an estimated 500,000 Sudanese children suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Yet lifesaving interventions like the one that saved Yasmine’s life reach less than 15 per cent of that number.
This troubling reality is compounded by other factors, including crop failure, and the difficulties of reaching populations displaced by ongoing conflicts, which risk further increasing the levels of under-nutrition among children. 

Fortunately, solutions are at hand. In the last two years, substantial progress has been made in promoting a more effective response to the growing nutritional crisis among children. With the support of UNICEF, training teams of government health staff have been created at federal level and in nine of Sudan’s 17 states. The result has been a welcome increase in the number of children being treated from 17,000 in 2008 to 75,000 in 2011. 

Central to the strategy is the involvement of community members who are given the responsibility of ensuring that children suffering from malnutrition go to the nearest feeding centre to receive treatment before it’s too late.

“What’s really encouraging about the case of Yasmine is the fact that a community member was involved in ensuring she got the treatment she needed,” says Mercy Chikoko, nutrition specialist for UNICEF in Nyala. “But to get into the villages, to screen the children and identify them at an early stage, I think that (aspect of the programme) will need to be strengthened.”



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