Haiti: Boy Escapes Clutches Of Malnutrition

On the left, two-year-old Michael before he began treatment for severe malnutrition at the Cotin health centre in Leogane. Right, Michael after four months of treatment. Copyright: WFP/Alexis Masciarelli

When two-year-old Michael started treatment for severe malnutrition, he was so weak that his mother thought he would die. But, with the help of the highly nutritious food products provided by UNICEF and WFP, he's now on the mend. Fighting malnutrition is one of the ways WFP and its partners are helping Haiti move forward two years after the devastating 2010 earthquake.

LEOGANE -- Jeanita is smiling even though her son is crying. Michael, 28 months old, is hanging from the scales at the Cotin health centre, where he’s been treated for the past four months. The nurse just announced the good news: the boy now weighs 11.3 kg. Michael has gained four kilos in as many months. After a first round of treatment, Michael’s level of malnutrition has gone from severe to moderate.

"Now he’s normal!" says Jeanita, explaining that her son is enrolled in WFP’s nutrition program and that every month she comes to the health centre to pick up up his ration of  Supplementary Plumpy, a nutritious peanut-based product packed with vitamins, minerals and milk proteins.

Two years since the quake

On January 12, 2010, Haiti was struck by a powerful earthquake that left more than 220,000 people dead and millions displaced. Between January and April 2010, WFP provided emergency food assistance to some 4 million people. Read more

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Sabrina Claudio, the doctor in charge of the health centre, is satisfied but cautious. “This child is in better health, but he is still weak”, she said. “He had parasites that prevented him from gaining weight. He still coughs a lot."

Taken to hospital

Despite the coughing,  the improvement in Michael's condition is clear to see. "I thought he was going to die. I gave him food to eat, but he wasn’t developing," Jeanita recalls, explaining that an official from the Department of Public Health discovered the boy in a state of severe acute malnutrition during a tour in the countryside, where the family makes a living growing vegetables. “The official asked me to come here and they gave my son medicine. Immediately after, he was taken hospital,” she added.

Next to Jeanita are 20 other mothers and pregnant women, all at the health centre to benefit from free malnutrition detection and follow-up exams. "Every day, we have 20 to 30 women who come to the clinic,” explains Dr. Claudio. "There is still a lot of poverty and the population does not eat well. There is food in the markets but people don’t have money to buy it."

In 2011, close to 110,000 Haitian children aged 6 to 59 months and 65,000 pregnant or lactating women received treatment to fight malnutrition as part of a programme managed by WFP in collaboration with the government and non-governmental organizations.

At the Cotin health centre, the Haitian department of health works in partnership with  WFP and UNICEF. UNICEF provides rations while children are severely malnourished and WFP takes over when their condition improves enough to be considered moderately malnourished.

Packets of energy

Each month, malnourished children, like Michael, receive 30 packets of  Supplementary Plumpy from WFP. These packets of energy of 500 kcal are designed to be given to children daily, along with standard family meals.

With its nutrition programmes, WFP in  Haiti is aiming to provide the right food at the right time, to give children the best possible start in life. "This has been studied worldwide: the 1,000 days from the time a woman becomes pregnant until the child reaches two years of age are the most important. It is during this period of life that the impact of malnutrition on the developing brain and body is the most serious and permanent,” said Paola Dos Santos, head of WFP's nutrition unit in Haiti.

This is why it is critical to identify signs of malnutrition quickly in pregnant women, nursing mothers and their children. To date, malnutrition screening and treatment services have been set up in nearly 400 health centres across the country. These centres function thanks to close cooperation between the Ministry of Public Health, WFP, UNICEF, WHO, and many local NGOs. The lines of women and children at them demonstrate that Haiti's fight against malnutrition is far from over.