Restoring malnourished children to health in the DR Congo
About 400,000 children in the DR Congo are facing life-threatening acute malnourishment. Malteser International is helping to restore children to health through its support for the local hospital in Adi, north east of the country. Thanks to specialized treatment using therapeutic milk, children like Dorcas and Viola are given a chance to survive.
Dorcas appears distressed whenever anyone approaches her. She looks very frail and way smaller than her actual age of two. Her bloated stomach and swollen limbs are one of many symptoms of Kwashiorkor, a disease caused by the lack of protein in a child's diet and is evidenced through edema or an abnormal accumulation of water in body tissues. Dorcas is suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
Armed conflict in DR Congo is causing hunger
In DR Congo, a long running insecurity crisis has forced millions to flee their homes and farms, separated families, and created widespread food insecurity. Malnutrition among children has now reached emergency levels in some parts of the country with about 400,000 children now at risk of death. Dorcas’s father left her mother and took the little girl to live with him, but could not sufficiently provide for her. After several months her mother came to see her, but her joy was outlived when saw the state of her daughter's health.
“She could barely move,” she cried. “She did not talk, she did not play.”
Simple methods for proper diagnosis
Thankfully, Dorcas was rushed to the local hospital in Adi which is supported by Malteser International. There, the staff confirmed she was severely malnourished after placing her on a measuring board. She was thereafter admitted into a therapeutic feeding program. The measuring board makes it possible to quickly diagnose severe acute malnutrition. Children who are malnourished are usually smaller than well-fed children of the same age.
Another method to quickly identify and monitor malnutrition is the Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) test, using a simple tape measure. The MUAC tape has three colored zones and is placed above the elbow of a child to determine the nutritional state of the child. A measurement in the green, yellow or red zone means the child is properly nourished, at risk of malnutrition or acutely malnourished respectively.
When another child, Viola was brought to the hospital, her mid-upper arm circumference measured 11cm and was in the red zone. With her family being poor, she had very little food. “When she was brought to the hospital for the first time, she was very weak and quite apathetic,” says the hospital’s chief nutritionist. “The little food she gets at home is an imbalanced diet of Fufu, a starch-rich staple food made from cassava and green plantain flour. This diet is bulky and is low on essential nutrients and minerals.” A chronic lack of nutrients can lead to serious illnesses in some children and even death in others.
Treatment using therapeutic food
To help Dorcas and Viola recover, doctors in the hospital administered the therapeutic milk-based formulas F-100 and F-75. These formulas contain milk, sugar, oil, minerals and vitamin extracts. The treatment of severe acute malnutrition in one child can take up to 60 days and costs around 240 euros. This is followed by the treatment of moderate malnutrition, which can also last up to 60 days.
Dorcas and her family have been in hospital for two weeks. During this time they only had to pay a sum equivalent to 9 euros, with Malteser International covering additional hospital fees incurred during their stay. In addition, Malteser International’s health experts organize training for medical personnel in the area on how to quickly identify and treat acute malnutrition.
Malnutrition inhibits development
Malnutrition also has serious consequences for the mental and cognitive development of children. These ramifications are potentially severe to national economies, as underdeveloped children grow into adults who cannot reach their full potential.
Today, the girls are visibly doing better. Viola is making a slow and steady progress and Dorcas still needs time to get used to the people around her. With some encouragement, she is convinced by the nutritionist to walk to the measurement board where her height can be taken and recorded. As she clumsily trudges to the target, she extends her hand in a bid to say ‘hello’, to the joy of everyone in the room.
“The road to recovery is slow,” says our nutritionist, “But very soon, their MUAC tape will be in the green zone!”
In the long run, a person without food is deprived of their dignity. Children are particularly dependent on a regular and balanced diet. Our aid projects in the DR Congo are intended to restore some of the dignity of starving people and children and to make our contribution to what we hope will be a better future for health in the DR Congo.