Teaching mothers about healthy eating is vital, say experts, in Liberia’s battle against malnutrition – the country’s most common cause of death among children.
Malnutrition causes forty-four per cent of childhood deaths in the west African country, which is struggling to recover after its 14 year-long civil war ended in 2003.
And if problems such as children being underweight, stunted or lacking in nutrients are not tackled, some 78,000 Liberian women and children will die and 87,000 babies will be born mentally retarded, warn United Nations agencies.
Ignorance about healthy diets is a major cause of malnutrition in children, said Samson Azorquoi, acting medical director of Phebe Hospital in Bong county, central Liberia. “People do not know that the problem is occurring and only learn that their children are malnourished after the child is brought sick to hospital and nurses diagnose malnutrition. The war has ended but the nutritional crisis has not ended,” he told the United Nations news service, IRIN.
The hospital runs a major United Nations Children's agency (UNICEF) – backed nutrition recovery centre that serves thousands of people, including people from neighbouring Guinea and the Ivory Coast.
Twenty year-old mother Lorpu Dolo, spent two months at the centre with her 22-month-old son, Alpha Loila. Alpha was malnourished because he drank lye – caustic soda – which is used to make soap. The lye tightened his oesophagus, so badly he couldn’t eat and his body started to waste.
Their case is far from unusual, say nurses working in the county, where the local authorities have put up posters featuring emaciated children and the message: “This is malnourishment – not from the lack of food but from caustic soda (lye).”
“When he gets well, I will take care of him like the people taught me, I will not allow him to get sick again,” Dolo said.
Another mother at the hospital was there with her 17-month-old twins who were admitted tired and crying with rising temperatures. They turned out to be suffering from severe malnutrition.
The country has made an effort to educate pregnant or nursing mothers about nutrition when they visit hospitals. But the best way to break the cycle of ignorance is to take the message to the communities where the people live. “We need a lot of health, nutrition and child survival training and home visits to signal cases for referral,” said Mary Tiah, a nurse in the Phebe Hospital nutrition centre.