By Alusine Savage
LUNSAR, Sierra Leone, 21 June 2007 - Ahmed Fornah plays on his mother's lap as they wait for his daily nutritional ration and medical check-up at Mabesseneh Hospital. At 15 months of age, Ahmed had one of the most severe cases of malnutrition the doctors said they have ever seen.
"When we first came here six ago weeks ago, I thought Ahmed would die. His body was frail and weak and severely malnourished. He was even too weak to move," says Ahmed's mother, Mariama Fornah. "I don't know how to thank UNICEF and the hospital staff for making my son well again."
Currently, more than a third of children under five in Sierra Leone are chronically malnourished. Their immune systems are weak and the risk of premature death is high. With one in every four children dying before his or her fifth birthday, Sierra Leone has one of the highest child mortality rates in the world.
The causes of malnutrition are varied and have been linked to a lack of awareness in mothers about breastfeeding, a reluctance to seek health care and a lack of food diversification due to poverty. Ahmed's malnutrition was caused by improper feeding practices.
In Sierra Leone, the rates of early and exclusive breastfeeding for infants aged up to six months are very low - around 8 per cent. Often, infants are fed non-breastmilk substitutes, especially water. This can prove harmful, because breastfeeding provides children with essential nutritional benefits that cannot be found in other sources.
Reducing the prevalence of malnutrition
UNICEF is supporting two therapeutic feeding centres in the northern region, one at Mebesseneh Hospital and one at Magbenteh Community Hospital in Makeni.
The centres admit children who are severely malnourished and under 70 per cent of their normal weight. They are nourished with high-protein biscuits, therapeutic milk, mineral and vitamin complex and ReSoMal (a rehydration solution for malnutrition). The centres run a growth-monitoring programme, ensuring that children do not relapse, and provide guidance on proper infant and child feeding practices for mothers.
"Apart from the daily check-up, we also check for other medical conditions associated with malnutrition like pneumonia and diarrhoea," said the superintendent of the Therapeutic Feeding Centre at Mabesseneh, Dr. Bailor Barrie.
Nutrition has been one of the most neglected areas in the post-conflict recovery process in Sierra Leone. UNICEF and its partners are working relentlessly to help reduce the prevalence of malnutrition. On 6 June, Sierra Leone hosted its first workshop on the treatment of severe acute malnutrition in children.
In collaboration with the World Health Organization, World Food Programme and other partners, UNICEF Sierra Leone plans to provide the same services found at Mabesseneh in each of the 13 districts nationwide. This effort will support the Ministry of Health and Sanitation's 10-year national plan of action for accelerating child survival, and will advance progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals.