By Victor Chinyama and Tiguaded Fentahun
South Gondar Zone, Ethiopia: Enalem Asnakew (40) had no idea why her one-year-old son Misganaw Asmare would not stop vomiting. His arms, legs, and abdomen were swollen and his appetite was failing. After about a month, she had had enough and decided to bring him to the local hospital.
“He was put on blood transfusion for three days,” she says in a barely audible voice. “Then, they administered [therapeutic] milk through his nostrils in addition to [intravenous] medicine. The nurses frequently visited my child and now, after nine days, the swelling has disappeared, the vomiting is almost gone, and my child takes therapeutic milk orally.”
Misganaw was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition, a serious but entirely preventable and treatable condition which the WHO estimates accounts for 35 per cent of deaths among children under five globally. Typically, severe acute malnutrition is treated in a hospital but the advent of ready-to-use therapeutic foods has enabled children like Misganaw to be treated at home if they have no underlying medical complication requiring hospitalization.
In general, Ethiopia has made strides in reducing undernutrition in children, with stunting in particular dropping from 58 per cent in 2000 to 38 per cent in 2016. However, the number of children with severe acute malnutrition spikes up during the ‘lean’ season between June and August, the period when most households will have exhausted their food stocks as they await the next harvest beginning September. Prolonged and chronic humanitarian crises, such as droughts and floods, also contribute to increased malnutrition in children.
Inadequate food however is not the only cause of malnutrition. Multiple factors, such as the child’s size at birth and the mother’s weight, predispose a child to malnutrition. Acute illnesses and poor feeding practices are other contributing factors. The key to preventing malnutrition therefore lies in improving the nutritional status of the mother, ensuring the child has access to an improved and diverse diet, providing safe water and sanitation, improving hygiene, and building a strong and supportive system at community level.
In 2011, with a US$ 50 million grant from the Government of Canada, UNICEF embarked on a project to improve nutrition in children and women in 100 food insecure districts in the Amhara, Oromia, and SNNP regions of Ethiopia. The six-year project, later extended for another year, was to improve the use of health and nutrition services by children, adolescent girls, and breastfeeding mothers, and increase the availability of water and sanitation services. The project focused on the community level, where efforts were made to increase the scope and coverage of nutrition activities. These included multi-media campaigns, education of mothers and caregivers on nutrition, promotion of breastfeeding, and increasing production of local complementary foods. Wells were drilled to supply safe water to communities and households were encouraged to construct their own improved latrines.
To improve service delivery, 2,000 community-based health extension workers responsible for mobilizing people and agriculture development agents were trained in nutrition. Water was supplied to health posts and committees to oversee water, sanitation, and hygiene activities were established at kebele level (smallest administrative unit in Ethiopia).
In total, the number of community-based nutrition activities doubled and 24 per cent more households cultivated a garden (the largest increase was observed among the poorest households). Nutrition knowledge among health workers and health extension workers increased from 51 to 80 per cent while exclusive breastfeeding increased from 71 to 80 per cent. The proportion of mothers stating that water should not be given to babies under six months of age increased from 61 to 78 per cent.
The project also marked a milestone as the first ever in Ethiopia to target nutrition for adolescents (children aged between 10-18 years). Deworming of adolescents was first introduced under the project as a pilot but was subsequently scaled up to national school deworming campaigns, reaching 3.9 million school children.
These results were achieved against a backdrop of unforeseen challenges, such as the civil unrest of 2016 which limited travel and access and the El Nino drought in 2016 which shifted attention and resources. Notwithstanding, a survey at the end of the project showed that stunting among children had declined from 40 per cent to 35 per cent and the prevalence of underweight children from 22 per cent to 17 per cent. Put differently, the odds of children in the 100 districts being stunted or underweight had been reduced by 19 per cent and 20 per cent respectively.
The education, mobilization, and support given to the 100 districts in Amhara and the other two regions will ensure that mothers like Enalem will never have to wonder again why their children are vomiting, or why their abdomen and limbs are swollen. They will also ensure that children like Misganaw can grow up healthy and strong, free from dangerous yet preventable conditions like malnutrition.