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Voluntary community workers fight malnutrition in northern Cameroon

Yaounde, Cameroon, 9 November 2009 - Massing Esther and Tito Anna, a set of two-year old twins have to be carried everywhere they go because they’re too malnourished to walk.

Both are almost 5 kilos underweight and they cling on to their mother at their village home in Tchontchi, northern Cameroon.

The twins are 2 of 12 children and their mother Marie Maboule, 42, is also undernourished.

The family doesn’t have a regular income and providing a nutritious meal on a daily basis is a difficult task. "I prepare ‘Niri’, (corn or millet flour mixed in boiled water)," she explained. Vegetables are few and far between and the family cannot afford to eat meat". 

Maboule says although they’re cultivating crops on farmland for their own use, it’s been a tough year.

"The crops we harvested this year 2009 are not enough to feed a family of 12. I find it very difficult to give my family two meals a day," she added.

The northern region is plagued with people who are unable to have a balanced diet and this has led to high rates of malnutrition, particularly among children.

Some 155 cases of undernourished children were registered at the local health centre in Tchontchi since July 2009.

Nutrition volunteers
The region is being targeted by a UNICEF supported initiative, where 412 voluntary community workers visit households to educate families on nutrition.

Sara Djanatou, one such community volunteer in Tchontchi, travels up to 15 kilometers every day to spread key messages on good nutrition.

As she enters Maboule’s house  she produces a poster from a carrier bag containing pictures of food such as eggs, fruit and highly nutritious vegetables.

She points to the pictures and guides the family on how they can cook a balanced meal within their financial means. 

"A lot of the people in this area, particularly women, are illiterate. The size of families here is also very high. So this coupled with poverty means that many families can’t afford to have two meals a day," Sara said.

In an effort to treat undernourished children before its too late , the community worker encourages villagers to visit the local UNICEF supported health centre run in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.

At the centre nurses examine children thoroughly by checking their weight and height and bowls of fortified food made from  a nutritious hot mixture of corn, soya bean, sugar and oil are distributed to those who are underweight.

Tackling one of the biggest child killers
Malnourished children with medical complications are referred to the nearby Guider district hospital where more then a dozen UNICEF trained nurses and doctors help to save lives.

Dr Nana Pamela attends to a child who has been admitted to the hospital.

"His heart beat is fast, he is dehydrated and has anemia too," she says.

Ziganawi Daouai an eighteen month old boy is barely conscious when he is weighed in at 6.9 kilos instead of 9.8, the normal weight for a child of his age.

But soon after doctors feed the child a mixture of therapeutic milk through a tube he begins to open his eyes. 

"Before the UNICEF programme started in 2009, people did not have access to the special type of food needed to treat malnutrition. Now they have access to therapeutic milk through the hospital as well as ready to use therapeutic food both at the health centres and hospital," Dr Nana Pamela, pediatrician at Guider hospital said.

Healthcare staff say they’ve already seen an increase in the number of children they have managed to bring back to good health and no deaths were recorded of  malnourished children in October 2009, compared to a total of 7 in July and August.

"In this northern region we have 100,000 malnourished children with rapid weight loss. The programme which covers 11 out of the 41 districts here has made it possible to treat 5000 to 10,000 children. We are looking for funds to scale up the programme." Denis Garnier, nutritionist with UNICEF Cameroon said.

Malnutrition is one of the biggest killers in Cameroon - 51,000 children die from poor nutrition every year.

By John Nkuo




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