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Faces of progress in tackling malnutrition in Mauritania

UNICEF/Mauritania/2009/Ould Isselmou
© UNICEF/Mauritania/2009/Ould isselmou
Saar and her mother at the nutrition center operated by the French Red Cross in Kaedi Hospital.

Kaedi, Mauritania, 14 July 2009 - A woman in the village told Saar’s mother to get her to the nutrition centre at Kaedi Hospital. The one year old girl was ailing and clearly ill.

At the center, surrounded by six other mothers with children needing special feeding she explained how the village council gave her money to ride on a donkey cart for the nine kilometre journey.

Kaadijetou Yero N’diaye, a supervisor at the center, assessed Saar as being malnourished but with another condition that was causing vomiting. Not so very long ago it would have been Saar’s more apparent symptoms that would have been mentioned first, with malnutrition logged as another issue, to be dealt with later, if at all.

“We speak about most child deaths being caused by malaria or respiratory diseases, but malnutrition is a significant factor that allows other diseases to become even more deadly,” said Christian Skoog, UNICEF Representative in Mauritania. “By ensuring that malnutrition is a priority, we are dramatically reducing the vulnerability of children to serious illnesses while ensuring other benefits such as improved physical and mental development.”

Malnutrition awareness
Considerable efforts are being made to ensure that everyone is ‘malnutrition aware’. Volunteers supported by the Mauritanian Red Crescent, the French Red Cross and the European Union visit villages to spread the word and to distribute dry rations they have bagged ready for children under treatment at home.

More than seven organisations are involved in the coordination set up by UNICEF under a plan that works on many different levels. All this is part of a global initiative called REACH to reduce child under- and malnutrition, which is being piloted in Mauritania and Laos.

The pillars of the initiative are to ensure a coordinated approach across all actors and to look at nutrition in the broader sense - analysing both underlying causes and wider consequences of poor nutrition and promoting both prevention and treatment.

UNICEF/Mauritania/2009/AOuld Isselmou
© UNICEF/Mauritania/2009/Ould Isselmou
A French Red Cross worker prepares food rations to be distributed to children under treatment at home. The response to malnutrition is a partnership among several aid organization coordinated by UNICEF.

In his office at Kaedi Hospital, Ibrahim Bar has figures showing how many children in the district are being treated each month. From his records we know that in May a severely malnourished baby was put into a special treatment unit. And 33 other acutely malnourished children came into clinics during the same month.

Two years ago such figures were simply unavailable.

Now there are also mobile teams going into rural areas, a programme for training health personnel and at least two campaigns a year for treating unreachable malnourished children. 

Setting ground rules
All malnutrition screening and treatment are laid out in a document published in March 2007. This National Protocol, adopted by the Government and developed with the technical support of UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, was ground breaking in a country where 13% or 70,000 children under 5 years of age suffered from acute malnutrition.

The protocol sets out very clear standards. Kaadijetou, the supervisor at Kaedi, is clear when asked how long baby Saar will need to spend at the hospital. She explained that ‘the protocol’ stated that because she was sick Saar will have to stay for at least two weeks. Her mother was given some soap and a blanket. She would be staying too and will receive two meals per day during the duration of her stay.

Saar’s mother is now comforted. “Saar is saved” she says, smiling.

By Brahim Ould Isselmou and Martin Dawes



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