This post was written by Issakha Diop, Helen Keller International’s West Africa coordinator for community-based management of acute malnutrition. In response to the crisis in East Africa, he has been seconded to UNICEF’s regional nutrition team.
The response to the crisis in the Horn of Africa has many dimensions. One of the responsibilities that my colleagues and I have is to ensure that the programs are implemented according to globally accepted standards.
Children in crisis, who have been deprived of adequate nutritious foods, are not only at risk of disease, but enter into a state of wasting as their bodies rapidly lose weight. Children who are severely wasted are 9 to 10 times more likely to die: they often lose their appetites, their bellies swell, and they are prone to a range of infections and micronutrient deficiencies. To help these children, we must screen them as soon as possible for malnutrition – and this screening must be done properly.
Hundreds of health workers travel deep into communities to find children at risk, and encourage mothers to bring them for treatment at specific sites. The treatment that will bring them from the brink of mortality is specialized and needs intense support. Many people know about providing therapeutic foods, such as the peanut-based Plumpy’Nut. What is less commonly known is how critical proper training, support, and supervision is for the community and health care providers who deliver these services. Along with these therapeutic foods, care providers have to deliver a package of essential services that includes assessing appetite, determining if there are underlying infections like malaria, and providing essential routine drugs including vitamin A, antibiotics, de-worming capsules, and measles vaccinations. And the recovery of these children needs to be closely monitored.
As the Regional Advisor for HKI, I have been trained to help establish and support programs that specifically focus on treating children with severe acute malnutrition to reduce the number of children who die. Given the magnitude of the emergency in the Horn of Africa, we greatly need highly trained personnel who can step in to provide these essential skills. I am working with UNICEF on their emergency operations team based in Nairobi. My role is to make sure that response teams on-the-ground deliver treatment that meets established global standards.
In Somalia and Kenya, I am helping ensure that the most vulnerable people – including children, pregnant women and lactating mothers – are prioritized for treatment and services. Working with our on-the-ground partners, I am helping make sure they have the tools they need. These include a simple comprehensive monitoring system that tracks the numbers of children reached, treated and recovering; a system to track admissions and ensure necessary materials are available; and a tracking system that forecasts the worsening of conditions and predicts the need for human resources in communities to ensure timely detection, referral and treatment of children at greatest risk of mortality.
As a leader in nutrition, HKI can apply the lessons we have learned in prior crises to help save the lives of children at risk of malnutrition now. We are committed to work with our partners in Somalia and Kenya not only to reach as many families and children as possible, but to ensure that the services provided are effective and of solid quality.
Next week, I will travel to Dadaab and will send more updates as soon as possible.