Fighting malnutrition and building capacity for child health in Haiti's camps

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By Benjamin Steinlechner

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 13 April 13 2011 – Thanks to UNICEF and its partners, many mothers in Port-au-Prince are now more aware of the dangers even mild malnutrition in early childhood poses to the mental and physical well-being and development of their children.

In Haiti, malnutrition is a major threat to child health. As many as 300,000 Haitian children suffer from chronic malnutrition, and up to half of child deaths in the country are caused by malnutrition.

The non-governmental organization UNASCAD (Union des Amis Socio-Culturels d’Action en Development) is active in sensitizing the community to these issues. The group is one of UNICEF’s most viable local partners in promoting a wholesome diet to some of Haiti’s most vulnerable families still living in camps as a result of the January 2010 earthquake.

Safe havens for mothers and children

“Only half a year ago, we knew almost nothing about malnutrition,” says UNASCAD manager Severe Joseph. “Today, we are educating and helping around 2,000 women in our five baby tents in Port-au-Prince.”

The ‘baby-tents’ are safe havens for women in the camps – places where they meet other mothers or pregnant women, exchange experiences and get professional advice from nurses. UNASCAD’s tent in the Caradeux displacement camp, close to the Port-au-Prince airport, bustles with pregnant women, young mothers and children from the camp’s vast population

“I come here at least twice every week,” says Yfolene Louis, 30, a mother of three. “I attended training sessions where they told me what to eat during pregnancy. I also learned that it’s necessary to exclusively breastfeed my child until six month of age to prevent diseases. I didn’t know that when my other children were babies.”

Promoting health and equity

Building the capacity of local NGOs and government agencies is a focus of UNICEF Haiti’s activities in 2011. It represents the most powerful tool for creating equitable access to health-care services and sustainable change.

“Capacity-building is a long process, but it’s encouraging to see improvements in the programme resulting from our support and collaboration,” says UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Leslie Koo.

Ms. Koo adds that one of UNICEF’s most important jobs is to help build the technical expertise of its partners. “We have to make sure the right information comes across in training sessions for mothers and mothers-to-be, and that this information is spread to as many people as possible,” she says.

Having collaborated closely with UNICEF through the different stages of its build-up, UNASCAD is now almost completely self-sufficient.

“Our NGO was also active before the earthquake but mostly involved with HIV/AIDS. I don’t think we ever achieved this much in such a little time,” says Mr. Joseph. “UNICEF doesn’t just give us money. They also support us with managerial advice.”

Therapeutic feeding

While word has spread in the Caradeux camp about the baby tent and the services it provides, there are still some mothers with severely malnourished children who are unaware that their children’s weakened state is directly connected to poor nutrition practices.

Eighteen-month-old Cherline Noel, with her weak legs and sunken eyes, is a stark example of the effects of severe malnutrition.

“We just met Roslande Noel, Cherline’s mother, outside when visiting another mother in her tent,” recalls Mr. Joseph. “We are experienced enough now to immediately recognize severely malnourished children, and Cherline definitely is one of them.”

Cherline will be referred to a treatment centre for acute malnutrition, where she will continue to receive therapeutic feeding.

“Our work doesn’t stop at this tent,” says Mr. Joseph “Every day, we receive women who have heard about us from their friends or neighbours. They want to know if they are taking care of their children the right way and how they could do better.”