Community-based nutrition programs empowering families to prevent malnutrition in Rwanda

Boy being treated for malnutrition at the Gisenyi Hospital
Venantie holds her 5-year-old son, Valens, at the Gisenyi Hospital where he is being treated for malnutrition. | © UNICEF Rwanda/2011

In the busy lakeside town of Gisenyi, a UNICEF-supported therapeutic nutrition rehabilitation unit is helping give babies a healthy start in life. Report by Jenny Clover, UNICEF.

The pediatric ward at Gisenyi Hospital sees around three new cases of malnutrition each week, and is working to bring this number down to zero.

The hospital’s community teams are working with families around Gisenyi to identify child malnutrition. Those in need of medical attention are referred to the hospital, where their parents can attend daily classes on proper nutrition to help the whole family remain healthy in the future.

Lessons in nutrition

Venantie, mother of 5-year-old Valens, is just one beneficiary of Gisenyi Hospital’s effective program.

Valens was identified as malnourished by regular community-based growth monitoring in his home area. When he was brought to the monitoring session, he had diarrhea, fever and vomiting, and he refused to eat or drink. He was taken to Gisenyi Hospital, where he stayed for a week.

“He became ill because I was giving him the wrong things to eat, and slowly he just got weaker and weaker, and then got sick,” Venantie said.

At the hospital, Valens was treated with fortified milk and high energy biscuits. Meanwhile, Venantie was referred to the hospital’s nutrition education program, where she was shown how to prepare healthy meals for her son and family.

“The nurses gave us lessons in nutrition every day,” she said. “I learnt how to prepare food that is high in energy and vitamins. Now I give him not only carbohydrates, but also bananas, beans and carrots.”

Valens will be monitored for three months after he leaves hospital, with health workers regularly checking his weight. His mother will continue to receive support on how to care for him, and she will bring him to the hospital twice a month for check-ups.

Reaching every child

malnourished children at Gisenyi Hospital
Women and their children stand in a ward for malnourished children at Gisenyi Hospital. | © UNICEF Rwanda/2011

According to the 2010 Rwanda Demographic and Health Survey, 44% of all children in Rwanda are chronically malnourished or stunted—shorter than they should be for their age—mostly due to insufficient food intake, recurrent illnesses, lack of knowledge about proper infant and young child feeding, inadequate hygiene and sanitation, poor primary health care, and household food insecurity.

With UNICEF support, the Government of Rwanda has put in place community-based nutrition programs to help communities monitor children’s growth, provide demonstrations on proper nutrition practices, and start home or community gardens. UNICEF is also helping the country’s 30 districts develop plans to eliminate malnutrition.

“Nutrition is the foundation for sustainable development,” explained UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Abiud Omwega. “This is why we take this issue so seriously and have helped the Government develop district plans to eliminate malnutrition and put in place community-based mechanisms to promote good nutrition.

“It is also why we support national Mother and Child Health Weeks twice a year, so we can ensure that every child is reached with vitamin A supplements to boost immunity and necessary immunizations.”

These efforts to empower communities to care for their youngest members will help ensure every child gets the healthy start they deserve.

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