Confronting severe malnutrition: Across South Sudan hunger is a daily reality for many children 

Confronting severe malnutrition: Across South Sudan hunger is a daily reality for many children

There was only sorghum for lunch, but it didn’t make the preparation any simpler. Report by Kun Li

UNICEF correspondent Kun Li reports on UNICEF’s efforts to treat malnutrition in the newly formed nation of South Sudan.

In Illeu, a small town in Eastern Equatoria State, Anorina Kabaka first had to bring a bucket full of sorghum grain to be ground into flour. While waiting for the sorghum to be ground, she plucked tamarind nuts, which she would soak in water to flavour the meal. Once she had returned home, she lit a fire, set a pot of water to boil, and mixed the flour into a thick porridge.

In spite of her efforts, meals like this barely sustain her family of nine children.

“What we cultivate in the garden is not enough to take care of these children,” said Ms. Kabaka. She wiped sweat from her face and continued. “Sometimes we go and cut firewood and take it to the market to sell. In case we get some money, we will buy food from the market. We don’t have any other work.”

Not enough to eat

Not too long ago, Ms. Kabaka’s 3-year-old daughter suffered from severe malnutrition. With treatment, she has recovered, but still needs follow-up care. That morning, Ms. Kabaka went to the local health post, which is also an outpatient therapeutic feeding centre, and collected more than 20 packages of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), her daughter’s treatment.

Anorina Kabaka holds tamarind fruits she uses to flavour her family's porridge in Illeu, South Sudan. It is a meal they eat every day. UNICEF Image © UNICEF South Sudan/2012/Li

Across South Sudan, the youngest nation in the world, hunger is a daily reality for many children. More than a quarter of South Sudanese children under age 5 are moderately or severely underweight, a result of food insecurity coupled with poor water, sanitation and hygiene, and unhealthy feeding practices. Moderate of severe stunting affects nearly a third of children under 5.

“Many children are malnourished because there is not enough food to eat around the house,” said Rachel Awadia, Director for Nutrition at the State Ministry of Health, Eastern Equatoria State. “Many mothers depend on wild fruits and vegetables to feed their families, which are not the ideal food to give to young children,” she added.

“There is also ignorance,” she said. “From the beginning of birth, babies are given water and food – exclusive breastfeeding is absent here. When the young mothers go out to search for firewood, water, and herd the cattle, they leave their children behind, often for hours, and the children suffer from starvation as a result.”

Suffering for too long

Nutrition programmes in Eastern Equatoria are being integrated into primary healthcare services. In hospitals such as Torit Civil Hospital, inpatient therapeutic feeding programmes are treating severely malnourished children with medical complications.

Due to the low capacity of the Government, “all these programmes, including training and supplies, are purely supported by UNICEF,” said Ms. Awadia.

Anorina Kabaka's daughter, 3, eats a ready-to-use therapeutic food at the local clinic in Illeu, South Sudan. She has been treated for severe malnutrition and is on the road to recovery. UNICEF Image © UNICEF South Sudan/2012/Li

Torit Civil’s brand new nutrition ward was just built by UNICEF, and will open shortly. For now, though, malnourished children are still being treated in the paediatric ward. There, a fragile 4-year-old girl named Susan is receiving treatment.

“I realized that there is something wrong with her when other children were all walking but she still couldn’t,” said Susan’s mother, Rose Iguri.

Like Susan, many of the children in the ward had been suffering from malnutrition for a long time, and they were all admitted far too late.

To tackle the problem at its root, UNICEF is also working with NGO partners to support mothers, nurses and midwives in ensuring malnourished children receive follow-up care at the community level. They are also disseminating key messages on infant and young child feeding practices.

The challenges are great, but hard work and commitment have begun showing results in the health and well-being of South Sudan’s youngest citizens.

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