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UNICEF-supported programme brings hope to severely malnourished children in Viet Nam

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kon_tum_UNICEFKON TUM, Viet Nam, 13 October 2011– Two-year-old A-Thau lives with his family in a simple house in a remote village in Kon Tum – a central highland province of Viet Nam. The smallest of six children, he is mainly looked after by his elder siblings, as his parents are too busy working in the fields to care for him all the time. Low birth weight and a lack of nutritious food resulted in recurrent illness and when his parents eventually brought him to the district hospital with a high fever and breathing difficulties, he was diagnosed as having pneumonia and severe acute malnutrition.

A vicious cycle

Malnutrition is a serious threat to child survival and development. However, many parents in Kon Tum only seek medical advice when their children experience a critical health situation.

"My son has been small ever since he was born and I thought it was normal," said A-Thau's father. "I thought he would eventually start to grow like my other children. I didn't know that you could die from malnutrition."

Children with acute malnutrition have lowered resistance to infection and are also more likely to die from other common childhood ailments like diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections. Poor convalescence with frequent illness saps the nutritional status of those who survive, locking them into a vicious cycle of recurring sickness, faltering growth and stunting.

While being cured from pneumonia, A-Thau was transferred to the children's ward to be treated for acute malnutrition, where he was given therapeutic milk, also known as F75 and F100. After significant weight gain and improvement to his health, he was released from the hospital after two weeks. Provided with locally produced ready-to-use therapeutic food, known as HEBI, A-Thau continued his treatment at home for a full week and is now on the road to a full recovery.

Management and prevention

A-Thau is among the first beneficiaries of UNICEF-supported Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition Programme in Viet Nam, which aims to reach more children with acute malnutrition through a combination of management at both health facilities and in the community. UNICEF helps to strengthen the health facilities in addressing acute malnutrition by training health staff on detection, as well as monitoring and treatment.

At the community level, the programme focuses on prevention as well as identifying and addressing acute malnutrition before symptoms require in-patient treatment. Health workers also organize cooking demonstrations to show caregivers how to make nutritious food for small children from locally available food. Raising awareness among the community is essential in addressing malnutrition in affected areas.

UNICEF has also supported the Government to carry out research and development of the ready to use therapeutic food for treatment in the communities. Known as HEBI in Viet Nam, the therapeutic food is soft, palatable and easy for children to eat without any preparation.

"New global evidence suggests that large numbers of children with acute malnutrition can be treated in their communities and the availability of ready-to-use therapeutic food is very important for the out-patient treatment," said Roger Mathisen, UNICEF Nutrition Specialist "By supporting Viet Nam to produce their own ready-to-use therapeutic food, we hope to ensure supply security and enhance the sustainability of the programme."

The way forward

Malnutrition reduction remains a major priority in the public health agenda of Viet Nam. The programme is expected to support the Government of Viet Nam in developing local capacity and systems for Integrated Management of Acute Malnutrition. After the pilot period, the programme is expected to be scaled up at national level and its services and products for detection, treatment and follow up of acute malnutrition to be included in the National Social Health Insurance and other similar health financing mechanisms.

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