UNICEF-supported programmes save young children from malnutrition in Darfur, Sudan

Getting a medical check-up is never a pleasant experience, and Yasmine, 1, is plainly not enjoying hers. She wails miserably as she is hoisted into a blue canvas scale and then suspended in mid-air for a few seconds while a nurse reads her weight. Report by Simon Ingram, NYALA, South Darfur, Sudan.

February 2012: UNICEF correspondent Simon Ingram reports on a UNICEF-supported programme that is saving lives in Darfur.

Her colleague nods approvingly as she makes note of Yasmine’s new weight: 5.5 kg. It may be light for a child her age, but it’s a big improvement from three months ago, when Yasmine was first brought to this therapeutic feeding centre on the southern outskirts of Nyala.

On that occasion, Yasmine was visibly malnourished, weakened by diarrhoea and vomiting. Her mother, Halima Osman, 22, was in a panic.

“I didn’t know what to do, but one of my neighbours told me I should come to this place,” recalls Halima. “They gave me some medicine and she started to improve.”

Eight-month-old Maha is weighed at Karawy therapeutic feeding centre in Nyala, Darfur. UNICEF Image © UNICEF Sudan/2012/Ingram

The ‘medicine’ is actually a therapeutic peanut-based paste known as Plumpy’Nut. Packed in a silver sachet, Plumpy’Nut delivers high-energy nutrition in a form that most young children enjoy. Yasmine has developed a fondness for it. “She eats two and a half packets a day,” says Halima approvingly as the child happily devours mouthful after mouthful.

Musa Jamal Musa, 1, is held by his sister, Intisar, as he eats a therapeutic nutritional paste used to treat severe acute malnutrition, at Karawy therapeutic feeding centre in Nyala, Darfur. UNICEF Image © UNICEF Sudan/2012/Ingram

Plumpy’Nut is part of a UNICEF-supported programme to tackle child malnutrition in Darfur. Its importance will be all the greater if – as the director of the feeding centre, Dr. Awatif Abdul Aziz, believes – the number of malnourished children needing treatment rises in the months ahead.

Reaching malnourished children

“When the weather is hotter, and when food supplies traditionally run short in many communities, then we will start to see more malnourished children being brought in,” says Dr. Abdul Aziz.

Malnutrition among young children in Darfur is only one aspect of a broader and long-standing challenge in Sudan. Each year, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese children suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Yet interventions like the one that saved Yasmine’s life reach only a fraction of that number.

This troubling reality is compounded by other factors, including crop failures and the difficulties of reaching populations displaced by ongoing conflicts.

Solutions at hand

In the last two years, substantial progress has been made in promoting a more effective response to the growing nutritional crisis among children. With the support of UNICEF, teams of government health trainers have been created at the federal level and in many of Sudan’s states. According to UNICEF Sudan, the result has been a welcome increase in the number of children being treated.

Central to the strategy is the involvement of community members who are given the responsibility of ensuring that children suffering from malnutrition go to the nearest feeding centre to receive treatment before it’s too late.

“What’s really encouraging about the case of Yasmine is the fact that a community member was involved in ensuring she got the treatment she needed,” says UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Mercy Chikoko. “But to get into the villages, to screen the children and identify them at an early stage, I think that [aspect of the programme] will need to be strengthened.”

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