A tale of two children’s journeys to recovery from malnutrition
A story from Dien Bien province, northern Viet Nam
Máy and Yêu are among over 200,000 children in Viet Nam who suffer every year from severe wasting. UNICEF works tirelessly to ensure that no child’s life is threatened by this disease.
The child would not stop crying in the hospital ward. One hand fumbling with a yellow duck toy, the father pulled her in and quietly stroked her thin hair. At age 3, Máy weighed only 7 kilograms, almost half the normal weight for healthy children her age.
“She kept throwing up while her fever wouldn’t go down. I was really scared of losing her, so we asked our neighbour to take us to the hospital with their motorbike,” said Dủa, Máy’s father.
Children like Máy need urgent support to stop malnutrition from threatening her life. UNICEF Viet Nam works day in day out to ensure the prevention and treatment of severe wasting in Viet Nam.
Late detection and treatment
This was not the first time that Máy was brought to Dien Bien Dong District Hospital, Dien Bien, where UNICEF supports the strengthening of the nutrition programme at the commune level. Her life is again in critical condition because of severe wasting1.
“Her parents brought her when the case is already too severe. She no longer has an appetite and the digestive system is failing her,” said Vàng Thị Trang, the hospital’s Deputy Head of Paediatrics.
Living 35 kilometres away from the hospital, her family is part of the Mong ethnic minority in Dien Bien province. With mostly ethnic minority households sprawled out on dissected mountainous terrain, this province is one of the poorest in the country. Accessing essential healthcare remains a particular challenge for children.
“We feed them whatever we eat. But mostly, we don’t have food in the house,” shared Dủa. He and his wife have not been able to afford food for Máy and her sister, let alone nutritious meals.
When both girls fell sick, his first instinct was to treat them with leaves from the mountains, as it is ingrained in his ethnic cultural belief to use traditional medicines. He was hoping they would get better.
“When a malnourished child is not thoroughly treated, the child can develop severe wasting. It is one of the main causes of death for children under five,” said doctor Nguyễn Đình Quang, UNICEF Viet Nam’s Nutrition Officer.
Severe wasting, a silent emergency
Despite progress, Máy is one of over 200,000 children in Viet Nam who still suffer annually from severe wasting. The disease is life-threatening and detrimental to children’s healthy development, yet access to its treatment remains low. For marginalized households that often suffer from multidimensional poverty like Máy’s family, the silent emergency is deafening.
“Máy is one of the lucky cases to be brought to the hospital. There are other children who pass away without ever receiving treatment,” said Trang.
While this alarming situation is not particular to Dien Bien, the province shows the troubling example of how a lack of resources and underdeveloped infrastructure, coupled with remote locations, can easily deprive children of a chance to survive and thrive.
“Our hospital needs better facilities and more medical devices like ventilators and infusion pumps. Without them, not only will these children suffer from malnutrition but also the whole community,” emphasized Ly A Nụ, the hospital’s Head of Pediatrics.
A wonder that saves lives
In another village in Dien Bien province, Yêu, who just turned 1, was regularly sick.
“She coughed a lot, was feverish and I had to skip our farming work to stay home with her,” said her mother Dúa.
When contacted by the UNICEF-supported Pu Nhi Health centre, she and her husband drove through 11 kilometres of rutted mountain roads to bring Yêu for a check-up. Like Máy, the little girl was diagnosed with severe wasting, but luckily earlier.
“Not only is she affected mentally and physically, but her parents will also have to stop working to take care of her,” said Dớ, the centre’s community health worker.
Giving the family advice, Dớ instructed the parents to feed Yêu with ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) three times a day until she recovers, after which feeding with regular meals can resume. Procured and used in many countries by UNICEF and partners to treat children with severe wasting, RUTF is a WHO-recommended product, known to be a “wonder product” that saves children’s lives.
“For some children, only after a week of taking this, they gained half to one kilogram! They love the taste! I feel happy and proud when the children recover and the parents trust us more,” added Dớ.
UNICEF in action
After a few weeks, Yêu started eating better and gained weight. Her smiles were bracketed by soft rosy cheeks, while her eyes sparkled. She crawled quickly, chewed fingers, and pointed at her surroundings with curiosity and enthusiasm.
“She has not been sick and could eat well! She doesn’t cry as much as before. Now I feel better going to work,” said Dúa as she held Yêu in her arms. “I am very thankful to the health worker, UNICEF, and the government for providing us with this product and support.”
UNICEF focuses on early detection, treatment and care for every child suffering from malnutrition. The health workers at Pu Nhi commune are trained to use simple but effective methods to detect acute malnutrition. They also consult families on affordable healthy diets and especially provide RUTF for households with SAM children.
Dúa was also referred by the health workers to attend the UNICEF-supported Parents Village Club, which meets every other month to learn about infant and young child feeding practices.
"The health worker taught me how to make a healthy bowl of porridge for my child," said Dúa.
An unrelenting mission to end malnutrition
With both local and global expertise, UNICEF’s interventions for nutrition are evidence-based, cross-sectoral, and innovative. The goal is unchanged: to end all forms of malnutrition.
“UNICEF supports the national health system to scale up the most practical solutions and focus on increased levels of local ownership,” said Quang.
In Dien Bien province and throughout Viet Nam, UNICEF works with the government, partners and communities to test these approaches, analyze the results and then bring them to scale. UNICEF is also advocating to ensure that RUTF is available for every child who needs treatment for severe wasting.
It is still a long way until every child at risk of malnutrition in Viet Nam can access the care they require for healthy development. Yet, relentless and committed, UNICEF, along with the health authorities, health workers, nurses, and the community are working today and every day to save the life of every child.
“Nothing can make us happier than seeing the smile of a healthy child. Even when they leave the hospital, we keep in contact to check in. We are always ready,” said Nụ.
1: Severe wasting is defined as low weight-for-height. It is the most visible and lethal type of malnutrition.