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Treating malnutrition: lifesaving physiotherapy in response to East Africa food crisis

Emergency
Ethiopia South Sudan

820,000 children in South Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and Ethiopia are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2017. Handicap International’s pioneering treatment methods will help to ensure that they recover and thrive.

Archive image: physiotherapy session, Kinshasha, 2013

Archive image: physiotherapy session, Kinshasha, 2013 | © Johanna de Tessières / Handicap International

Severe Acute Malnutrition

When a child has severe acute malnutrition, you can see their body wasting. They have thin limbs, loose skin, a low body temperature and bloating caused by water retention. Their immune system is unable to fight off infection, which means that they are nine times more likely to die from pneumonia, malaria, measles and diarrhoeal diseases.

Children under five who survive severe acute malnutrition suffer major trauma when they would normally be developing their basic physical and intellectual abilities. Instead of learning to sit, crawl, observe and solve problems, their bodies need to use all of their energy simply to survive. If their suffering is prolonged, these children are likely to experience developmental delays and, in severe cases, can be left permanently disabled.

As a result of the food crisis currently sweeping the region, at least 820,000 children in South Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and Ethiopia are expected to reach the critical state of severe acute malnutrition in 2017 and many more are in danger.

Survival and Resilience

Handicap International has worked with children suffering from malnutrition for many years. Our rehabilitation specialists have developed proven methods of stimulative physical therapy that work alongside emergency nutrition, rehydration and essential medical care to give children the greatest chance of survival and to enhance their future quality of life.

Handicap International specialist, Rozenn Botokro, helped to develop these methods, she explains;  “at first, physiotherapy may not seem to be an urgent need in such a dire situation, but the body of a child with this level of malnutrition has been seriously damaged. We need to get these children moving, thinking and playing again otherwise they will not fully recover and may become malnourished again. Simply providing the calories and nutrients is not enough; physical stimulative therapy breaks the cycle.”

Our teams also prioritise building a supportive network around a malnourished child by working with recovering families. Interactive play, exercise and basic physiotherapy led by parents or caregivers has been shown to lead to improved growth and development of motor skills. This approach ensures not only that children survive but that they grow up to live full, healthy lives.

Targeted response

In response to the alarming rise in severe acute malnutrition cases in East Africa, we are launching new stimulative physical therapy programmes in Ethiopia and conducting field assessment in Somaliland and Uganda. These programmes will run alongside existing emergency response activities run by health partners. The programmes will primarily target displaced populations, where the proportion of children arriving with severe acute malnutrition is particularly high.

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