The day Prosper rushed his 3-year-old son, Pierre, to the nearest health center, he wondered if he would survive. Pierre weighed just under 20 pounds and he had severe diarrhea. During the 7-mile walk from their village to the capital of the Central African Republic, Prosper prayed: “I didn’t know if I was going to get to the hospital with Pierre alive. Even if I made it, I didn’t know if he would make it. I wondered if God's plan was to take him back.”
Pierre's mother died shortly after he was born. With no job in a country ripped apart by conflict, Prosper provides for his family by collecting corn from the dwindling supplies at a nearby farm. But as Pierre’s weight steadily dropped and he grew sicker, refusing to eat, Prosper looked to traditional medicine to help his son, thinking he couldn't afford hospital care.
Prosper's dilemma is all too common in the Central African Republic, where the effects of COVID-19 and years of sectarian violence have created a terrible crisis for children, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a child.
In 2021, UNICEF treated 30,000 children under age 5 for severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in the Central African Republic. SAM — the most extreme and visible form of undernutrition — can be fatal if untreated, but according to Jacqueline Tchebemou, a UNICEF-supported doctor at the nation's only pediatric hospital, children often don't get the medical care they need because parents like Prosper can't afford to provide for them or get them to the hospital in time.
"It’s really sad because malnutrition is an illness that can be prevented, but we see cases every day, dozens of cases every day," said Tchebemou. "Sometimes children arrive here in a very serious condition. They go straight to the emergency ward and some die. It’s really painful. It’s sad."
But thanks to UNICEF and Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF), Pierre got the help he needed. The doctors at the Bangui Pediatric Hospital, a lifeline for children suffering from the most severe cases of malnutrition, treated him with RUTF, a tasty nutrient-packed paste UNICEF has found to be the most effective tool for treating acute and severe acute malnutrition.
What is Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food?
RUTF is used by UNICEF to help the millions of children threatened by acute malnutrition worldwide. The peanut-based paste doesn't require refrigeration and stays fresh for up to two years. Best of all, no mixing with potentially contaminated water is required. Each packet comes ready to use. All parents have to do is open the packet, give it to their children and watch them grow healthy and strong.
UNICEF is the global leader in RUTF procurement, purchasing and distributing 80 percent of the world's supply. UNICEF works with manufacturers to increase supplies of the product and keep prices down. One carton of RUTF contains 150 packets, enough for one six- to eight-week course of treatment to restore the health of a severely malnourished child.
In Pakistan, 10-month-old Younas was brought to a UNICEF-supported clinic in South Punjab by his mother. He was weak and losing weight each day, and instead of learning to crawl and take his first steps, he mostly cried and slept. "I breastfeed him and give him buffalo milk, but he keeps getting diarrhea," his mother recalled telling the health workers.
Their diagnosis was quick and effective. Younas was suffering from SAM, a major health issue for both children and their mothers in rural Pakistan. But after seven weeks on a diet of therapeutic food, he began to recover. And thanks to the health and nutrition training his mother received at the clinic, she knew what he needed to continue growing healthy and strong.
Malnutrition is a silent threat to millions of children. The damage it does can be irreversible, robbing children of their mental and physical potential.
UNICEF provides lifesaving treatment to children suffering from SAM, counseling to caregivers on how to feed infants and young children, emergency primary health care services and safe water. "Malnutrition is a silent threat to millions of children," said UNICEF Director of Emergency Programs Manuel Fontaine. "The damage it does can be irreversible, robbing children of their mental and physical potential. In its worst form, severe malnutrition can be deadly."
COVID-19 is fueling a rise in malnutrition rates
The socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have worsened the pre-existing crisis of child malnutrition. Household poverty and food insecurity rates have increased. Essential nutrition services and supply chains have been disrupted, and food prices have soared. As a result, the quality of children’s diets has gone down and malnutrition rates are going up.
UNICEF is working with partners to minimize the impact of a downward spiral that is jeopardizing children's development. In 2021, UNICEF and partners treated 2.4 million children around the world for severe acute malnutrition. UNICEF aims to reach 7.2 million more with lifesaving treatment in 2022.
Top photo: In the Central African Republic, a mother holds her child, who is being treated for severe acute malnutrition with Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF), an energy-dense, micronutrient-enriched paste made of peanuts, oil, sugar and milk powder. © UNICEF