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Fighting malnutrition in Nepal

In Nepal, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 4 in 10 of under-fives are underweight and nearly half suffer from stunted growth.

According to the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), malnutrition is the “silent epidemic” in Nepal. But even when health workers identify those children who are malnourished, it can be difficult to convince mothers their children need treatment.

IRIN reports on this problem in isolated rural districts such as Achham. In this mountainous western region of Nepal, acute malnutrition rates among young children are as high as 18 per cent. Low levels of education among women mean there is poor awareness of why children become sick and what a healthy child should be like. IRIN spoke to one mother whose child had been admitted to the Achham District Hospital. The mother had no idea her daughter was suffering from malnutrition, telling the news agency “all of my children look like this”.

When health workers identify children who are malnourished, mothers also have a long trek to bring their children to the local hospital. Medical care is provided free to the children, but many are not brought for follow-up appointments. In conjunction with the Nepalese government, UNICEF is running a community programme in the region to tackle malnutrition rates. 26 health centres have been set up as outposts to reduce the distance parents have to travel for their children to receive care. At the health centres, instead of just weighing children, medical workers measure the circumference of their arms. They also provide parents with a tape measure. This is an easy way for mothers to see if their children have a problem, particularly since acutely malnourished children can swell up in their abdomens.

High-protein packages of food, such as ‘Plumpy’nut’ are given to mothers of malnourished children. However, some complain that their children do not like the taste of the food and say they end up eating it themselves. This is a common problem with nutrition supplements, especially since some have a bitter or odd taste. Food agencies in various countries are working on foods, such as orange maize, which are naturally sweet tasting and also have high nutrition content. But until such foods are more widely developed and available, agencies like UNICEF must carry on the work of persuading mothers that the long-term health of their children depends on improving their children’s diets.

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