Saturday May 8 2010

Dying of hunger in a fertile land

By Felix Basiime


Ms Rosette Kansiime, sits with her ailing child, Prosy Natukunda, on a hospital bed at Nyahuka Health Centre in Bundibugyo District. She has been at the centre for weeks nursing her baby.

The 25-year old and her one-year-old baby were lucky to have got a bed because the centre is congested and has beds without mattresses. Other children and their mothers sleep on the floor of the ward. Around Kansiime, children are crying and look haggard.

Health workers said Nankunda’s condition is due to poor feeding, clinically known as malnutrition. It is caused by chronic hunger and leads to stunted growth in children. Natukunda is one of many other malnourished children in Bundibugyo District. At Bundibugyo Hospital, the head of the pediatric ward, Mr Richard Chandiga, says between 30 and 40 similar cases are treated every month. At least six children have died in the past three months, he adds.

Mr Chandiga says the number of malnourished children recorded at the hospital does not reflect the magnitude of the problem because some children are not brought to hospitals. “There are so many cases of malnourishment in the villages but the communities are not aware of it. They don’t know the causes until other infections crop up and they come to hospitals,” says Mr Chandiga.

This is the reason why the Ministry of Health, the World Food Programme, and Bundibugyo authorities have launched a three-year mass sensitisation campaign to eliminate child chronic hunger in the district.

Despite the large amounts and varieties of food produced in western Uganda, the region is faced with a child stunting crisis resulting from chronic hunger. Bundibugyo is the worst-affected district according to WFP. “Forty-five per cent of children aged under five in Bundibugyo have been left stunted because of poor diets,” says Health Minister Stephen Mallinga.

“Bundibugyo has a potential to grow most food crops, it is fertile but due to the peasant life here, our people are lazy and neglect food crops leading to stunting and less body size,” said the district vice chairperson, Ms Grace Katusabe. “People are just lazy, those who produce, sell all. How do you feed other people outside the district before you feed your own,” said Mr Joseph Maate, the Bughendera County MP.

Chronic hunger among children is a condition where children lack the required nutrients especially protein over a sustained period in their early lives. It can lead to stunted growth and can compromise mental development.

Child chronic hunger has left over 38 per cent of children, under five, short for their age, or with development and learning problems that may lead to poor performance at school. “Over 38 per cent of all children in Uganda, aged five and under, are stunted,” WFP Country Director, Mr Stanlake Samkange says. “This a major challenge as the condition can lead to life-long damage to the minds and futures of children.”

A major factor causing chronic hunger is a general lack of information on appropriate nutrition for pregnant women and children. Poor feeding during pregnancy, infancy and weaning periods can lead to stunted growth, delayed mental development and poor immunity.

The effects of stunting can go on to adulthood. Life expectancy of the people affected is shorter and there are high chances that their babies will be underweight, said Samkange. According to Dr Jennifer Mybre, a volunteer at Nyahuka Health Centre’s ward for the malnourished children, to prevent malnutrition, a mother must have iron, calories, protein and must breast feed her baby for at least 6 months.

Most farmers have abandoned growing food crops and switched to cocoa, a cash crop, leading to food insecurity in the district. A kilo of cocoa goes at Shs2,500 or Shs5,000 depending on whether it’s organic or not. The Deputy RDC, Mr Patrick Kawamara says: “This area was a food basket but people resorted to growing cocoa.’’