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Ignorance on malnutrition costs children’s lives

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Wounds are still festering and tears still rolling down for Loyce Mabala who ignorantly lost her two under-five children to ‘unknown’ diseases but with similar symptoms in a space of five years.

Mabala, from Traditional Authority Mabuka in Mulanje, says prior to their death, both children had lost weight and had flaccid skin.

They were never taken for medical attention. Instead she opted to consult a traditional healer who told Mabala that the children fell ill because her husband was sleeping around when she was pregnant.

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“He (the traditional healer) said when my husband slept with other women, his blood system got contaminated with strange blood. This also affected my blood system and that of the unborn baby, hence the illness after birth,” Mabala says.

The sad part is that even though she gave the children the native concoction, she lost them.

Mabala remains with one child who was then seven years old but looks younger than his age.

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It was until this child also fell ill that she realised that all along she had been cheated by the native doctors.

“I took my child to Mulanje [District] Hospital where he was diagnosed with Malaria but I was told that he is stunted due to malnutrition,” Mabala recalls.

The World Health Organisation describes malnutrition as not having enough energy or nutrients to live a healthy, physically active life that allows for optimal health.

Mabala is one of the many parents who have food in the house but end up having malnourished children because of illiteracy.

This is not an isolated case because reports indicate that there are also many children across the developing world who are not starving or even hungry, yet they are struggling to get the nutritious food they need to grow properly.

Simiya Kazembe, from Bwanala Village, Traditional Authority Chowe in Mangochi, is also caught in a similar situation.

She says her child has a good appetite and she gave her food but her legs were sometimes swollen.

“Even though I noticed that she was gaining weight, occasionally, she also had high fever for about six months,” Kazembe says.

She resisted the advice from other villagers to take her child to a traditional healer and opted for Chowe Health Clinic. The clinic referred the child to Mangochi District Hospital where she was admitted to the facility’s Nutrition Rehabilitation Unit (NRU).

“She was tested for HIV/Aids and Tuberculosis and the results were negative. That’s when the nurse told me that my child was suffering from malnutrition. She was given milk and later ‘Chiponde’ (peanut butter),” says Kazembe.

Nutrition Coordinator for Mangochi District Hospital, Gertrude Maida, says malnutrition is a big problem in the district where between 20 and 23 percent of malnourished children who report to the hospital die.

She observes that most children become malnourished because parents do not observe balanced diet and lack of adequate health services, household food insecurity and general lack of basic resources are among the contributing factors.

“At times parents may be wasting time consulting native doctors instead of taking the children to the hospital but it’s hard for us to know since they usually keep it a secret,” says Maida.

According to Maida, the biggest challenge is the lack of knowledge on the part of the parents for them to give children the required essential foods which include carbohydrates, proteins, fats, legumes, milk, vegetables and fruits.

“Like in the case of Kazembe’s child, she didn’t know the right food to give her. She thought that as long as the child is given any other food, she could not suffer from malnutrition,” she says.

Maida also stresses that pregnant women should be well nourished, otherwise they risk giving birth to an underweight baby.

United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef ) notes that more than half of Malawian children suffer from chronic malnutrition, resulting in stunted growth (being too short for one’s age).

It further points Malawi as one of the countries with high malnutrition incidence in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The World Food Programme (WFP) says even though Malawi has made remarkable progress in improving child health outcomes as evidenced by the reduction in infant and under-five mortality, there has been slow progress in reducing malnutrition.

“Currently, the country has high levels of stunting among under- five children, which is an indication that chronic food and nutrition insecurity are still prevalent,” reads in part WFP’s website report.

In May this year, a study titled ‘The Cost of Hunger in Africa: The Social and Economic Impact of Child Under nutrition’ revealed that Malawi government loses K150 billion annually due to the effects of child under-nutrition.

The report shows that this money is lost through increased healthcare costs, additional burdens to education system and lower productivity by its workforce.

Unicef also discloses that globally at least 35 percent of child deaths are linked to under-nutrition, 10 percent of lifetime earnings are lost when a person is undernourished in childhood, and 11 percent of GDP is lost to under-nutrition in Africa and Asia.

Civil Society Organisations Nutrition Alliance Malawi (Csona) says 50 percent of deaths of under-five children were caused by malnutrition.

Projects Officer for Csona, Virginia Mzuzu, says malnutrition has several effects, including disease vulnerability and disability.

“Babies who are malnourished in the womb, have a higher risk of dying in infancy and are more likely to face life-long mental and physical defects and chronic health problems,” she says.

Mzuzu adds that malnutrition also contributes to a reduction in brain development, lower educational attainment, lower income potential and decreased productivity and reduced economic growth.

She suggests that there is need for advocacy since many people do not know nutritious foods to give to their children.

Mzuzu, however, says that being stunted is irreversible condition.

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