In the Central African Republic, UNICEF expands a nutrition treatment center for severely malnourished children

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By Colette Boughton and Elisabeth Zanou

BANGUI, Central African Republic, 1 February 2012 - About 100 malnourished children are admitted each month in the Bangui Paediatric Hospital, many of them requiring three to four weeks of treatment.

Until recently, cramped conditions meant that only one bed was available for every three children. Patients and their parents were often relegated to corridors and communal areas.

But all this changed on 5 November 2011, with the opening of an extended nutrition treatment centre offering semi-intensive care services.

New and improved services

UNICEF officials and members of the Italian National Committee for UNICEF visited the hospital in 2010, and were moved by the conditions facing sick children, their parents and staff.

With UNICEF support, the treatment centre was expanded and renovated with new rooms, additional beds, new medical equipment, improved toilets, a new kitchen and canteen, and a doctor’s office. The new facilities are meant to increase survival rates, ensuring all children have their own beds, and enabling parents and hospital staff to better care for patients.

On the day of the opening, 18-year-old Ibrahim Japoné and his 3-month-old daughter Sylvie Maté moved from an overcrowded room to a bed in the new facility.

Sylvie’s mother had recently died after their family fled violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Sylvie weighed only 2.3 kg when she arrived at the hospital, and needed to gain at least 2.6 kg before she would be healthy enough to be discharged.

“I brought my daughter here a few days ago for treatment, and if she takes the milk, she could recover in three weeks and we may leave,” Mr. Japoné said.

About the new facility, he said, “We will be more comfortable here now.’’

Threat of stunting

Still, malnutrition remains a serious threat to the children of the Central African Republic. The 2010 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), a UNICEF-supported household survey, indicated 2 per cent of the country's children under the age of 5 suffer from severe acute malnutrition, a potentially deadly condition.

Hospitals struggle to meet the needs of these children every day. Outside of the capital city of Bangui, seven provincial towns lack adequate facilities to treat severely malnourished children.

And UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake recently highlighted a related malnutrition threat: the hidden crisis of stunting confronting children around the world. Stunted growth has far-reaching effects on the health and development of children, leaving them vulnerable to infection and impairing their ability to reach their full potential.

The 2006 MICS revealed that between 38 and 43 per cent of children under age 5 in the Central African Republic suffer from stunting.

”Almost 5 out of 10 children suffer from stunting, or chronic malnutrition,” said Elisabeth Zanou, a UNICEF Nutrition Specialist in Bangui. “Children’s cognitive development, their capacity to learn at school and later their productive capacity as adults are noticeably reduced. Unfortunately, this type of malnutrition is difficult to treat, and the consequences are irreversible after the age of 5.”

UNICEF is working to improve treatment centres in areas without adequate facilities so that all malnourished children have access to affordable care with acceptable conditions. Efforts are also underway to improve micronutrient consumption, an intervention with long-lasting benefits.

“It can be hard to raise enough funds for treatment and prevention of malnutrition, however micronutrient supplementation and efforts to improve the nutrition of pregnant women and feeding habits of young children have a known and significant impact on all aspects of child development,” Ms. Zanou said.