Thursday, December 10, 2015

Helping babies grow healthy in Timor-Leste

Francisco, a 14-month old malnourished child receiving treatment
from the sub-district community health center at Bobonaro.
©UNICEF EAPRO/2015/Snazer
Carmelita Moniz lives in Aldeia Oalgomo, a small, remote village in the west of Timor-Leste sitting on a wind-swept hill surrounded by dry bush, sweeping down into the valleys below. Carmelita, holding her son, has had a difficult motherhood. She lost two children within days of being born, and she discovered that her 14 months old son was severely malnourished.

“When Francisco was one, they found that he was severely malnourished when I went to immunize him at the health centre,” says Carmelita, holding Francisco, surrounded by on looking villagers.

“I live with my whole family in this small house, including my grandmother,” she says. “We produce corn and peanuts and we store some of it here and sell a little. We eat corn every day. We boil it and mix it with some beans. If we can afford it, we’ll also have some rice”.

Silent scourge of undernutrition
Carmelita fed her son rice soup from a powder mix for breakfast, lunch and dinner – food lacking the appropriate macro and micronutrients that would help children like Francisco develop. She also continues breast feeding to her son. With more than half of under-fives stunted (too short for their age) children, Timor-Leste is amongst the countries with highest rates of chronic malnutrition in the world. Underweight children and levels of wasting (too thin for their height) are also among the highest in the region.

Fortunately for Francisco, a community health worker, Francisca Carvalho Gomes (23), was able to help. Health workers like Francisca are being supported by the Nutrition Programme implemented with UNICEF support and financial assistance from the European Union to provide check-ups, advice and medical supplies to help children.

“When my son was diagnosed as malnourished, the doctor immediately gave me the medicine with instructions on how I should give the medicine to my child,” says Carmelita while her son visibly enjoyed eating plumpynut, a supplement for malnourished children.

Plumpynut is a therapeutic food used for the treatment of severely malnourished children. The peanut based paste, which comes in a small red and white packet, provides the appropriate mix of vitamins and nutrients to help children recover from malnutrition.

After Francisco was put on treatment Francisca, the health worker treating him, quickly saw his health improve. “We prescribed him one package of plumpynut a day. He is now already getting bigger.” Francisco’s mother also received counseling on appropriate feeding practices for her child, both for the prevention of malnutrition and for adequate growth from Francisca.

“We help to improve health promotion and education to parents and
care givers on nutrition,” says Francisca, a health worker working
at Bobonaro Sub-district Community Health Center.
©UNICEF EAPRO/2015/Snazer
Francisco was fortunate that the Health worker was able to identify him and provided help families in need to access the health services that are available to them.

“Francisco’s weight was 4.1 kg when he came to us. Now, only 2 months later, he is 5.5 kg”, says Francisca, the health worker who helps families throughout the region. 

Parents and caregivers role is critical to tackle undernutrition
According to Francisca, more needs to be done to improve parents’ knowledge and awareness on the importance of child health and nutrition. “We help to improve health promotion and education to parents and care givers on nutrition,” she says.

With training of health workers on key nutrition interventions, such as promotion of exclusive breastfeeding and appropriate complementary feeding through counselling, treatment of severe acute malnutrition and other interventions, the project is working to enhance capacity of the Health Workers which will help to reduce undernutrition and stunting in the country.

“UNICEF and the EU support the health center with equipment, plumpynut, training, information materials, as well as vitamin A and deworming tablets. The support is very good to help improve health workers knowledge to deliver services to children and families in need”, Francisca explained.

Plumpynut is a therapeutic food used for the treatment of Francisco
as he was a severely malnourished child. ©UNICEF EAPRO/2015/Snazer
“I’d like my child to be healthy and later be a good student at school,” says Francisco’s mother, cradling him in her arms.

Currently UNICEF is closely working with the Ministry of Health (MoH), with the assistance from the European Union (EU), on the further development and implementation of a standardized High Impact Nutrition Intervention package to improve the nutrition status of children in this young nation.

By Dominggus Monemnasi, Senior Programme Communication Assistant,
UNICEF Timor-Leste

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