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UNICEF addresses malnutrition among South Sudan refugee children

By Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye

Thirteen year old Buol Nyaner sits on a bench with other patients (mothers and children) at Odoubou Health Centre (HC) II, located in Rhino refugee camp, Arua District. It is Wednesday, a day when the nutrition clinic is conducted at this HC. In this camp, malnutrition remains a serious challenge affecting many children and pregnant women.

Originally from South Sudan, Buol and her family now live in Rhino camp having fled their home country due to war. Asked why she was at the Health centre, Buol tells us she had come to collect plumpy nut, a ready-to-use therapeutic food, with extra nutrients for malnourished children. 

Two months ago, Buol was brought to the HC, weak, sick and wasted (low weight compared to her height). Upon review, she was given treatment and provided with therapeutic food. She has since returned twice and her health is improving. “I like plumpy nut. It has made me stronger and healthier,” she says with a broad smile. “I was very weak and sick when I first came here,” she adds.

She sits patiently on the bench, listening to health workers during a nutrition educational session where mothers are enlightened on the benefits of proper nutrition practices, infant and young child feeding practices, breastfeeding, balanced diets, hygiene, among others.

During the sessions, the health workers are supported by Akon Thiong, a mother of twins who demonstrates to mothers how nutritious and enriched porridges are prepared. Akon is also a beneficiary of the UNICEF supported nutrition programme at Odoubou. Her twins were treated at the HC and have since recovered from severe malnutrition. Akon now volunteers as a nutrition ambassador sensitising mothers on the benefits of proper infant and young child feeding practices, balanced diet and the dangers of malnutrition especially among children. She also encourages mothers to grow vegetables in their backyard gardens as these are highly nutritious and supplement on the available foodstuffs.

Once sessions are done, children and pregnant mothers undergo nutrition screening to ascertain progress since their last visit. Buol’s current height and weight are taken and she is referred to another corner where more plumpy-nut is provided. She receives enough that will last her until her next visit. Excited about her progress, the health worker encourages her to continue taking the plumpy nut as recommended and reminds her of the next visit, in a months’ time. She smiles back.

Odoubo HCII is one of the four health facilities in Rhino camp refugee settlement that offers health services to both refugees and host communities. Since June 2014, the HC with UNICEF support and funding from European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), established an Outpatient Therapeutic Centre (OTC) to address the increasing number of malnutrition cases. With the same support, five out of eleven HC staff were trained on quality treatment of malnutrition cases.

According to Joseph Mbabazi, the Concern Worldwide Emergency Nutrition Officer, following an assessment done after the South Sudan refugee influx, 15 children out of 100 screened were malnourished and two severely malnourished. The numbers were high. However at that time, Odoubou HC did not provide OTC services but with support from UNICEF, the centre has since been assessed and now offers curative and preventive services to address malnutrition among children under five and pregnant women.

Concern Worldwide, the implementing partner, continues to work closely with Village Health Teams (VHTs)  to ensure early identification and referral of malnourished children, monitor progress of affected children as well as strengthen awareness on better feeding practices within communities, to avoid any relapse cases.

“Going forward, our main focus is on preventive rather than curative measures. Using this approach we have set up a demonstration kitchen at the HC where mothers are showed the different types of nutritious foods that they can give their children and how to prepare these foods. We also have a demonstration garden where we plant and showcase different types of nutritious vegetables that mothers can easily find and plant back home for their children inorder to protect them from nutrition deficiencies,” Mbabazi asserts.

Feeling much better and stronger, Buol’s weight has shot from 30kgs to 35kgs and now attends school regularly. With proper nutrition Buol will survive and thrive to realise her dream of becoming a teacher.   

UNICEF’s Wilson Kirabira agrees that the situation has since improved. Based on the results of a recent survey, the numbers are surely going down as a result of the UNICEF supported nutrition interventions, with currently five out of 100 refugee children confirmed malnourished.

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