Nutrition Stabilisation Centres giving hope to children in Zimbabwe

"Play therapy is the highlight of my day, art makes me feel like a child again"

Rutendo Bamhare
UNICEFZimbabwe/2022/Rutendo Bamhare
09 March 2022

Sixteen-year-old, Fortune Maseko, lights up as she waves a piece of paper with her drawing of her favourite television characters. "Although my siblings are still recovering in this hospital, I find comfort in my art," she said. "One day I will tell my story through my drawings."

Fortune's four-year-old twin brother and sister, and two-year-old brother were admitted into the Mpilo Nutrition Stabilisation Centre three months ago after being diagnosed with Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM), a life-threatening condition if left untreated.

The children were diagnosed with SAM when social workers visited Fortune's home after her mother passed away. Through the grief of losing their sole guardian, Fortune being the oldest of six children, was forced to take up responsibility of caring for the family. Fortune describes the difficulties she faced before the social welfare intervention.

"It felt like a huge burden to have to feed and take care of five children, I almost ran away, but I promised my mother I would take care of the family if anything happened to her" Fortune shares while holding back her tears.

However, Priscilla Chari, the pediatric nurse working in the Nutrition Stabilisation Centre speaks with optimism when describing the grief-stricken situation surrounding this child-headed family.

“Since the introduction of our therapeutic food, we have seen improvements. All three children were admitted with Failure To Thrive (FTT) and nutrient deficiencies" Priscilla explains "Now their bones are getting stronger, you can see it in their postures and behavior."

Mpilo centre
UNICEFZimbabwe/2022/Rutendo Bamhare

Zimbabwe is a country with a high burden of multiple forms of malnutrition. The rural and urban ZimVAC assessments conducted in 2021 reported a national Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) prevalence of 2.8%, with a SAM rate of 1.1%. The proportion of children aged 6 to 23 months receiving minimum acceptable diet, was low at 3%. 

The Mpilo Nutrition Stabilisation Centre is located in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second-largest city. Children with complicated malnutrition, which is often compounded by chronic underlying causes such as TB, HIV, pneumonia and others are referred to the central hospital where there is specialized treatment by pediatricians.

The main objectives of the centre is to provide life-saving nutrition treatment for children affected by complicated acute malnutrition, nutritional support, and counselling to mothers and caregivers as well as offer caregivers psycho-social support for their children during treatment.

Play Therapy is an important component of the programme because mothers or caregivers of the malnourished children are required to stay in the ward during the treatment.  They learn how to stimulate and engage their children during feeding sessions and how to play games that will help the treatment process.

“Alert and engaged children tend to recover faster than the lethargic, inactive ones. Play therapy is, therefore, an important component of the treatment for malnutrition,” said Priscilla the pediatric nurse, “Caregivers are also taught how to prepare and feed children nutrient-dense diversified diets.

Although intended for mothers and children, the concept has proven to be beneficial to Fortune as the primary caregiver to her siblings.

"Play therapy is the highlight of my day, art makes me feel like a child again"

UNICEF, through the Health Development Fund (HDF), procures and supplies all the therapeutic food (RUTF, F75, F100, Resomal), and medication needed for treatment of malnutrition at the Nutrition Stabilisation Centre. UNICEF also supports capacity building for health workers in the Nutrition Units and provides equipment which is used to monitor growth and weight gain in children.

This initiative has resulted in a rise in cure rates and the death rate in the Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition (IMAM) programme has decreased.  For the year 2022, it is set to target at least 22,000 children.

"Fortune's situation speaks to the need to strengthen integration between social protection and nutrition, particularly linking children with SAM and their families to social protection and assistance programmes and ultimately increase the resilience of these families," said UNICEF Zimbabwe Deputy Representative Zeinab.

"At UNICEF we have adopted a working system where we promote the integration of programmes and congregation of efforts to benefit the same child. We continue to support the government in investing in programmes where integration is clear and deliberate and multisectoral approaches are well coordinated."

Fortune and her siblings need to find a new home with supervision and support to allow them to thrive. Together with the Ministry of Public Service, Labour, and Social Welfare, the center is working towards finding them a safe home.