If I know about a malnourished child, I will go to the family’s house every day to check on the child. If they don’t have food, I will buy it myself and give it to them. I just can’t look away. I’m South Sudanese and these are my people.
Recently, I have been working in South Sudan documenting the treatment of three children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM). The biggest difficulty is their location, as they live in the far north. This meant that I’m not able to see them as frequently as I would like. If the families were in the capital city of Juba, I would be knocking on their doors daily. That is the kind of nutritionist I am.
I’m passionate about my work and I want to see our children healthy and happy. I remember my uncle advising me to choose a profession that I love and that I wouldn’t tire of easily. I chose nutrition and I studied it for five years at University. I have never been bored in more than six years I have practiced.
It feels great to be able to help severely malnourished children, however it upsets me that our children are in this situation in the first place. Children should not suffer severe malnutrition, because it is preventable. As a mother, and I feel for my sisters all over the country who have sleepless nights because their children suffer from malnutrition.
In my opinion, we need to have a paradigm shift from treatment to prevention. Thankfully, UNICEF has already started that shift. Together with our partners, we promote exclusive breastfeeding the first six months of a child’s life to give them the best possible opportunity to survive, we encourage and promote acceptable and age-appropriate complimentary feeding practices and we advise mothers and other caregivers on good hygiene practices to avoid illnesses such as acute watery diarrhoea – a main contributor to malnutrition.
To intensify malnutrition-ending efforts, we need the international community to step up and invest in prevention. In South Sudan, we have good results from what has already been done. The prevalence of acute malnutrition among children in South Sudan declined from 22.7 percent in 2010 to 13.3 percent in 2018; children suffering from chronic malnutrition was reduced from 31.1 per cent to 17.1 per cent in the same period.
Is this by accident? Surely not!
- Exclusive breastfeeding has increased from 45 per cent in 2010 to 74 per cent in 2018. Breast milk has everything a child needs for growth and development for the first six months of life and allows children to build up their immune system.
- Primary caregivers given nutrition counselling increased from 118,000 in 2014 to 950,000 in 2018
- Children receiving Vitamin A supplements increased from 4 million in 2016 to 2.3 million in 2018.
To fight malnutrition, we must also address underlying causes, these include:
- preventing malaria infections, improving household hygiene to avoid diarrhoeal infections
- supporting families to invest in home gardens, and
- introducing cash-transfer programs for poor mothers and families to reduce poverty and increase purchasing power for basic food needs.
The outlook for 2020 is not good and UNICEF estimates that 300,000 children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition – that’s 40,000 more than this year. It is more important than ever to do what we can to support these children before they get malnourished.
We have made huge investments and improvements in helping children who are acutely malnourished, for example by increasing the number of Outpatient Therapeutic Programme Centres (OTPs) where they can get help. In 2014, there were 351 OTPs. By the end of 2018, the number more than doubled to over 900, improving access to help.
As of July 2019, more than 144,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition have been treated across South Sudan.
The good news is that nine out of ten children treated in the OTPs recover and go on to live healthy and full lives. I hope our donors and partners will continue to support our aim to make nutrition centres hardly needed and ensure every child is surviving and thriving.
By the way, if you let me know where you live, I will come over to discuss this further. You know how I get when I’m passionate about something, and right now I’m very passionate about ending malnutrition among children in South Sudan.
Why are so many children eating too little of what they need? Take a glimpse at the changing face of malnutrition and download the report on the State of the World’s Children.
Jesca Wude Murye is a Nutrition Officer in UNICEF South Sudan.