Treating malnutrition as Zimbabwe grapples with raging inflation

News and Press Release
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By Tapuwa Mutseyekwa & Tsitsi Singizi

HARARE, Zimbabwe 28 October 2008 - Two-year-old Appreciate lies in a bed at the at Harare Central Hospital. At just under 10 kg, he shows many signs of severe malnutrition: a swollen stomach, dry scaly skin and hollow, sunken eyes.

Luckily, his mother, Revai Ndoro, was quick to see the pending danger and took him to the hospital. He was immediately referred to their Therapeutic Feeding Centre, where he was diagnosed as suffering from the syndrome known as 'kwashiorkor' - characterized by skin and hair changes and oedema.

"He has not been growing at all," said his mother. "For the last three days, he was bedridden, moaning in pain and breathing heavily."

Therapeutic Feeding Centres

Harare Central Hospital is one of approximately 70 Therapeutic Feeding Centres being supported by UNICEF in Zimbabwe. Each day, about 15 children are admitted to the hospital with severe malnutrition.

An estimated 50,000 children in Zimbabwe are severely underweight.

With UNICEF support, the centre has responded to the high influx of patients coming in mainly with the symptoms of kwashiorkor or severe wasting known as 'marasmus'.

Treating severe malnutrition

At the centre, treatment of malnutrition begins with observation and weighing. For severe cases, a therapeutic milk called 'F75' is given to the child at three-hour intervals.

With the help of F75, malnourished children can gain approximately two kg in three to four days, at which point they are often able to return home.

Other children go home with a two week supply of Plumpy'nut, a ready-to-use nutritional paste.

The centre also offers daily lessons on proper nutrition, hygiene and other forms of child care to parents and guardians to help ensure that the child will continue to thrive.

Supporting improved treatment

Since 2002, UNICEF has supported improved treatment methodologies for malnutrition in Zimbabwe's hospitals as a way of reducing child mortality.

"Malnutrition can be cured, with very simple and cost effective measures," said UNICEF Zimbabwe Representative Roeland Monasch. "Sadly, many children die due to lack of proper treatment. Such loss of life is unacceptable. At UNICEF, we are working to reverse this."

For Appreciate, the three days he spent in the Therapeutic Feeding Centre were life-saving. Unfortunately, neither the mother or the father are employed, so it will remain a challenge for the two parents to provide food and ensure that Appreciate remains on the path to recovery.

Entering the 'lean season'

As Zimbabwe enters the height of the lean season, the danger of a malnutrition crisis does not seem far away - a daunting proposition for the children of a country already in a humanitarian crisis. With raging inflation and a continued shortage of basic food commodities, cases of malnutrition in children between six-months and 12-years-old are becoming more apparent in Zimbabwe.

"Zimbabwean children cannot afford a looming malnutrition threat in addition to the immense challenges they already face every day," said Mr. Monasch. "It is a very serious and real concern as families grapple to feed their families."

This week, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reiterated the United Nations' willingness to support Zimbabwe throughout this delicate transition process and to work with regional leaders and the international community to provide immediate relief to the suffering of its people.

"Zimbabwe's children deserve better. They deserve to go to school, to drink clean water, to access quality heath care and to go to bed without feeling hungry," said Mr. Monasch. "Without humanitarian assistance, the fate of these children will remain largely unchanged."