DR Congo

Merlin identifies nutritional crisis in Bas Congo

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The medical relief agency Merlin has identified high rates of malnutrition amongst children in parts of western Democratic Republic of Congo. Merlin's nutritional survey of Luozi and Mangembo districts of Bas Congo has highlighted the prevalence of both acute and chronic malnutrition among children under five years old.
The survey of a sample of over 900 children was carried out between 13 September and 14 October 1999. This was during the traditional lean period at the end of the dry season, when the food security situation is at its most vulnerable. Malnutrition is part and parcel of the hunger season, but in this instance global acute malnutrition among children aged between 6 and 59 months was found to be 26%. Severe acute malnutrition was 20.7%. The majority of children surveyed were suffering from kwashiorkor. Global chronic malnutrition of children in the same age bracket was 64.2%. Children with severe chronic malnutrition made up 38.7%. The previously limited nutritional surveillance in the area means there can be no comparison made with the lean period of previous years, but these stand-alone figures are high enough to cause concern.

Despite the lack of comparative figures, it is considered that malnutrition during the hunger period has been exacerbated by the influx of refugees and returnees fleeing the war in neighbouring Republic of Congo. This has placed increasing demands on the local economy and food supply. Traditionally, the Bas Congo population exports their surplus food to the Republic of Congo in exchange for sugar, salt, meat and fish. The closure of the border has stopped this trade, which has had a massive impact on the local economy and a severe knock-on effect on people's ability to feed their families.

The survey reveals that the refugee, returnee and local populations have been equally affected by the food security problems, as the nutritional status of the different groups appears to be similar.

Popular local beliefs link witchcraft to the causes of malnutrition. Malnourished children tend to be hidden away and treated with traditional interventions such as local herbs and massage. This may mean that supplementary and therapeutic feeding centres would not be the most appropriate form of treatment, and that working through community groups may provide affected families with greater access to medical help. Merlin has shared the results of this survey with interested NGOs which are currently formulating a response to the nutritional crisis.

Agricultural techniques in the region are basic and in certain areas the soil is poor. There is widespread deforestation and the practice of 'slash and burn' is common. The local diet is monotonous, with cassava as the staple. Some rice and maize is grown, along with beans, groundnuts and vegetables but are often sold rather than eaten. The health infrastructure is poor, as are the roads and transportation.

Notes to editors

MERLIN (Medical Emergency Relief International) is a British medical charity which sends volunteer doctors and nurses to disaster zones worldwide. MERLIN is currently working in Albania, Liberia, Siberia, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Indonesia, Tajikistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

MERLIN is a registered charity which depends on public support. Donations can be sent to: MERLIN, 14 David Mews, London W1M 1HW.

Media contact Kara Brydson: 0171 487 2505 (0468 732586 eve/weekend)
MERLIN, 14 David Mews, Porter Street, London W1M 1HW. Fax 0171 487 4042. Registered charity no: 1016607.