2008: The struggle to survive in Ward AO7
Malnutrition in Zambia is so prevalent that University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in Lusaka – the capital’s largest public hospital – has a dedicated unit for infants and children called the Paediatric Malnutrition Ward A07 (Ward AO7).
Sister in Charge, Nurse Brenda, and Grace Nwasile, nutritionist, spend their working days here, often managing more children than they have room for.
“There are 59 beds, but sometimes we have 90 to 100 patients. They have to share cribs in Bay 4, the rehabilitation bay where the children go before they are discharged. They are nearly recovered so they are no longer vulnerable to spreading or receiving infections. We can’t send them away, so the children must share resources,” explains Grace.
Tragically, by the time many infants arrive at Ward AO7, their tiny bodies are in such severe states of malnourishment that they are simply too weak to respond to treatment. Survivors and children who suffer from chronic malnutrition do not always return to full strength, for prolonged or frequent malnutrition can cause permanent damage to growing bodies.
Dr. Beatrice Amadi, Consultant Pediatrician and Head of UTH’s Malnutrition Ward and a consultant for the Ministry of Health, has worked with malnourished children for decades and has seen the effects of malnutrition on growing infants and children.
“We see a regression of milestones in malnourished children. They stop walking. Their brain development is affected. And these are the future resources of this country,” said Amadi. “Prevention is important. If we fail to catch this generation of malnourished children earlier, it will mean permanent health problems. We must work to address the underlying causes of malnutrition. Poverty, unemployment, and food security. It is as much about social causes as it is the medical implications.”
In response to the situation of malnourished infants and children in Zambia, UNICEF has teamed up with partners like UTH and Amadi to implement an innovative and effective series of trainings designed to address malnutrition.
UNICEF Nutrition Officer Chipo Mwela explains, “A typical training includes 25 health workers from around the country who learn procedures in treating and rehabilitating malnourished children. They are then trained to be trainers themselves, and upon returning to their communities, train colleagues and community workers. We are effectively creating a chain of knowledge that is spread province to province, district to district, community to community, mother to mother.”
While learning to medically treat malnutrition is the focus of the trainings, there is also an emphasis on education and outreach. Workers and volunteers are prepared to counsel pregnant women and mothers in infant and child nutrition and recognition of symptoms, so that prevention becomes practice in every home.
Combating malnutrition is imperative for the future health and development of Zambia’s children, not to mention the nation’s future development. Malnutrition is the underlying factor in the country’s alarming child and infant mortality rates. Approximately 70 out of every 1,000 infants fall victim before they celebrate one year. As children comprise more than half of the Zambian population, there is no doubt that malnutrition is as dangerous and pervasive as any other threat facing children today.
“Working on various fronts, with hospitals, clinics, families and communities, is the best way forward,” says Grace. “One day I hope to see these cribs empty, for then I will know that we are taking better care of our children.”