Malnutrition Crisis Threatens Over 573,000 Children in Malawi

Beneficiary of the dietary community diversification program Beneficiary of the dietary community diversification program - pic by Alinafe Mlamba

Despite efforts to curb malnutrition, a staggering 573,000 children under the age of five in Malawi face the looming threat of malnutrition.

Over the past five years, Malawi has experienced an unacceptably high rise in child malnutrition, especially among underprivileged children.

While commendable progress has been made in reducing these rates, the nation continues to grapple with persistent challenges driven by acute food insecurity caused by climate shocks, disease outbreaks, economic instability, and funding shortages.

Natural disasters and human activity have contributed significantly to ongoing food insecurity, resulting in the failure to establish sustainable diets.

This dire situation has led to alarming levels of malnutrition in Malawi, particularly among children. Experts highlight that dietary energy supply within Malawi falls far below the population's dietary energy requirements, and agricultural practices have further exacerbated the lack of dietary diversification.

Since 1992, concerning statistics on malnourished children in Malawi have remained unchanged. Approximately 46 percent of children under 5 are stunted, and 21 percent are underweight.

The leading causes of malnutrition in Malawian children include infectious diseases, malnourishment of pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, limited access to adequate pediatric care systems, and economic instability.

In the last five years, Malawi has witnessed a troubling surge in malnutrition cases among its youngest citizens, intensifying significantly in recent months.

Since 2017, collaborative efforts between the European Union (EU), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and UNICEF have been pivotal in supporting government's response through the implementation of the Afikepo project.

This initiative aims to combat malnutrition among under-five children and expectant mothers by focusing on bolstering nutritional support and essential resources.

Supplementary feeding and educational programs are key aspects of the initiative.

Community-driven complementary feeding programs and educational sessions have emerged as linchpins in the fight against malnutrition. The goal is to raise awareness and address the root causes of this pervasive issue.

From the heart of Kukada Village, Traditional Authority Nkanda in Mulanje, Dawa Kotokwa, a mother of three, shared her poignant tale tied to the Afikepo program. Her three-year-old daughter, Kevia Chipangwe, battled malnutrition in 2020. The comprehensive support provided by the program notably improved Kevia's health during the 12-day intervention, showcasing the tangible impact of this initiative.

“When the health surveillance assisstant visited us it was recommended that she should join the supplementary diet for 12 days as she was wasted, it was after that, that her health improved.

Shifting focus to Traditional Authority Ndanda in Mulanje, Fanny Barton, a pregnant woman previously affected by malnutrition, expressed deep gratitude for the life-saving opportunities offered by the program.

Today, Fanny testifies to the life-saving potential of the initiative for expectant mothers. Her narrative underscores the pivotal role these initiatives play in safeguarding the well-being of both mothers and their children.

“I was very malnourished and wasted but after consultations with the health surveillance assistant my health improved and I gave birth to a healthy child who is now six years old. I am now expecting another child and my health is good due to the dietary support advice that I was given,” Fanny says.

“As a previously malnourished pregnant woman this program has been a lifesaver for me,” she added.

The expansive Afikepo project spans ten districts of Mulanje, Chiradzulu, Thyolo, Kasungu, Salima, Nkhotakota, Nkhatabay, Mzimba, Karonga, and Chitipa. Backed by a €74,550,000 EU fund, this project, slated to conclude in December 2023, emphasizes dietary diversity, particularly through fortified porridge, as a crucial intervention against malnutrition for children, breastfeeding, and expectant mothers.

However, persistent challenges linger. Health Surveillance Assistant Harold Tembenu, from Kuselema Village, Traditional Authority Ndanda in Mulanje, cited obstacles such as climate change and resistance hindering the full-scale implementation of the EU-funded project.

“The challenges we have been facing since the implementation of the project have mainly been on misunderstandings of the community, religious beliefs and climate change. I can give an example of the recent cyclones we have experienced which destroyed all fields and washed away mainly the crops that we relied to bring nutritious value to us,” he said.

While child malnutrition rates remain unacceptably high, Malawi's measurable progress in combating malnutrition indicates the potential to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that need nurturing.

SDG Number 2 aims to achieve food security and improved nutrition for all by 2030, encouraging resilience and inclusivity in addressing this issue.

Aligned with this goal, community-driven initiatives are making notable headway in the battle against malnutrition.

Alinafe Maida, associated with Tadala Village Savings and Loans under the Afikepo Program in Witika Village, Traditional Authority Ntchema in Chiradzulu, emphasizes the significance of economic empowerment.

Overseeing 350 households, Maida witnessed positive outcomes: economic upliftment and a healthier community, marked by zero malnutrition cases since 2019.

“It was after the Afikepo project that people realized that they were failing to provide a balanced meal for their children. As of now, people know what to do. The program has epowered us economically, allowing us to effectively combat malnutrition within our community,” she said.

As the project concludes, the fight against malnutrition among Malawian children remains critical. Nutritionist Dorothy Malamulo suggests the government could utilize available expertise to spread knowledge gained from these initiatives to other communities.

In response to the call Deputy Director in the Department of Nutrition Kondwani Mpeniuwawa, amplifying messages on dietary diversification is key for the government to deal with malnutrition.

Highlighting the urgency of the situation, UNICEF estimates that in 2023 alone, over 62,000 children aged between 6 to 59 months face severe acute malnutrition.

This figure emphasizes the urgent need for interventions to address this growing crisis. The alarming statistic underscores the pressing need for immediate and sustained interventions to tackle this critical issue head-on.

As stakeholders and communities intensify efforts to combat malnutrition, the urgency for concerted action cannot be over-emphasized. The future of the nation hinges on this crucial issue. A country with malnourished citizens cannot achieve desired development in any sector.

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