Vulnerable children need access Mortality rates were observed to be 50 per cent lower among a large group of young children in the west African nation of Niger in 2010, after they received a highly nutritious supplemental food, according to preliminary findings in a study by the international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The encouraging findings reinforce the need for international donors and policymakers to make high-quality foods a cornerstone of childhood health programs, especially in areas where malnutrition is rife.
Malnutrition weakens the immune system, exposing a child to higher risk of death from other illnesses, such as malaria, respiratory infections and diarrhea. Adding a quality supplemental food to an essential package of care, including includes vaccination and effective treatment and prevention of primary killer diseases of young children, will accelerate the fight against child mortality. Last year in Huntsville, Canada, G8 member states committed to refocus efforts over the next five years to cut mortality rates of children under five years of age by two-thirds from 1990 levels. At their meeting this week in Deauville, France, G8 members should commit to ensure that appropriate foods reach vulnerable children, says MSF. “Our preventive strategies focused on getting a nutritionally appropriate food to children during the most crucial time – the critical window of six months to two years of age – instead of waiting for them to start losing weight, and we observed child mortality rates to be lower by half,” says Isabelle Defourny, a medical doctor and MSF program manager for Niger. “If donors and policymakers are serious about reducing child mortality rates, then providing child-appropriate foods must be made a standard component of any pediatric program in the world’s malnutrition hotspots.” At any given time, an estimated 195 million children are affected by malnutrition worldwide. It contributes to at least one-third of the eight million annual deaths of children less than five years of age.
In the Madarounfa district in Maradi region, the observed mortality rate among children who received the enriched foods was 2.2 deaths per 10,000 children per day, compared to 5.3 deaths per 10,000 children per day among those who did not receive supplements. In the Guidan Roumji district of Maradi, mortality rates were 1.1 per 10,000 per day compared to 2.5 per 10,000 per day. In the town of Mirriah in Zinder region, the rates were 1.2 per 10,000 per day versus 3.2 per 10,000 per day. “Providing young children with high quality nutritious foods has long been one of the foundational principles of successful malnutrition and child mortality reduction programs in Europe, Latin America and the United States, along with immunization, for instance,” said Susan Shepherd, MSF doctor and child nutrition advisor. “It’s time to stop applying different standards for children living in malnutrition hotspots. We can save children’s lives today if the appropriate resources are put behind similar interventions we deployed last year in Niger.” Countries such as Mexico, Thailand, the United States as well as many European nations have successfully reduced early childhood malnutrition and mortality through programs that ensure infants and young children from even the poorest families have access to nutritious foods such as milk and eggs. However, many food-insecure families cannot afford these animal-sourced foods, which contain the high-quality proteins, fats, and other essential nutrients that children require. National programs that fill this nutritional gap for young children are essential. The development in recent years of a new generation of nutritional foods tailored to the needs of the most vulnerable children and that are simple to use make it possible establish a new standard in childhood mortality prevention. In 2010, in addition to malnutrition prevention activities, MSF and its partners, FORSANI and BEFEN/ALIMA, carried out pediatric and nutritional activities in 64 primary care facilities and nine hospitals in Niger’s Tahoua, Maradi and Zinder regions. Approximately 150,000 children suffering from malnutrition were treated – nearly half of all the malnourished children treated in the country in 2010 – of whom approximately 24,000 were hospitalized. Between 85 and 92 per cent of children were discharged. MSF and its partners also treated 216,330 cases of malaria among children less than five years of age, conducted more than 370,000 pediatric consultations and admitted more than 13,000 children to hospital.