Laos: UNICEF moves to combat extreme child malnutrition in flood-affected provinces

Lao children proudly display rats they have caught destroying their crops

15 September 2010 – The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and its aid partners are joining forces with health officials in Laos to tackle what they describe as alarming levels of malnutrition among children in nine provinces affected by floods and typhoons in the past two years.

A Government assessment conducted earlier this year in collaboration with UNICEF found “extremely high levels” of malnutrition, the agency reported yesterday.

In Attapeu, one of three southern provinces covered by the survey, 18.9 per cent of children aged six to 59 months were found to suffer from acute malnutrition. That figure is nearly 4 per cent above the international definition for an emergency situation.

In response to the assessment, the Government and its international partners have devised a 12-month strategy of urgent interventions targeting around 200,000 children. This includes the dispatch of therapeutic feeding kits to severely affected areas and the training of health staff and volunteer community workers, who will carry out a screening and assessment of the most severely malnourished children.

For its part, UNICEF will accelerate the distribution of micronutrient powder for children aged six to 23 months and promote zinc supplements for children with diarrhoea. A campaign to promote exclusive breastfeeding for at least the first six months of life is using education and community participation to tackle inappropriate feeding practices.

The floods from 2008 and Typhoon Ketsana last year destroyed rice crops and other agricultural production in some of the poorest areas of the country, leaving communities struggling to feed themselves.

The survey uncovered a number of worrying facts, including significantly high levels of stunting among young children in the southern province of Sekong. More than a third of young children in the nine affected provinces suffered from anaemia. Communities also reported inadequate access to safe drinking water and outbreaks of waterborne diseases.

The report also highlighted the prevalence of poor infant feeding practices – critical in determining a child’s health and future development. The team found many mothers fail to exclusively breastfeed their children in the early months of life. Many infants, some as young as two months old, are instead given sticky rice, water and soup.

Experts say the early introduction to solid food puts babies at risk of infection, particularly by diarrhoeal disease and acute respiratory disorders.

“This is a really worrying situation, but it’s good to see a response taking shape,” said Timothy Schaffter, UNICEF Representative in Laos.

“Through working closely with our different partners in the government and other organizations, we aim to bring about a rapid improvement in the nutritional status of these children.”

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