Spotting and preventing malnutrition in Mauritania

Published: 22 December 2011 14:18 CET

By Irene Peiro, Spanish Red Cross

Malnutrition is a complex problem with causes that go beyond access to good food sources. Livelihoods, hygiene and education all play their part in helping families provide for themselves and prepare for those times when natural disasters decimate local food supplies.

Poor rains in Mauritania this year have had a devastating effect on crops and livestock, leading to an inevitable rise in malnutrition. Houley, Oggeinaba and Oumoann are all mothers of malnourished children.

Houley doesn’t work, neither does her husband. She has mental health problems and her husband, a former soldier, lost his fingers in an accident when he was in the army. With no income, the couple meets the needs of their seven children through the solidarity of their neighbours in Gourelboubou, a village of over 2,000 people in the department of Boghé. Yet one of their children is suffering from severe malnutrition. Houley is also malnourished, and this has made breastfeeding her youngest child impossible.

This is just one of the cases detected by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), during a food security assessment mission in Mauritania. In Gourelboubou, the team found another child with moderate malnutrition. While the boy’s father works as an electritian in surrounding villages, the work doesn’t always pay for the necessities of life, and his mother, Oggeinaba, says the family also lacks good sanitation facilities.

Poor hygiene and lack of work or income are among the main causes of malnutrition in the country. Between 10 and 15 per cent of the population is malnourished, and the figure is even higher among children. In addition to the problems that are normally associated with malnutrition, children are also more prone to disease and less able to fight off infection. Nutrition and hygeine go hand in hand.

However, these are not problems that affect only the poorest villages. Cases of malnutrition were also found in villages with a herd, such as Beeli Baabaabe in the Department of Boghé, where the IFRC team detected two cases of moderate malnutrition among 30 children.

In another village in the Department of M'Bout, in Tchout, the team tracked two moderate cases of malnutrition out of 52 children screened. Oumoann Alassane, the mother of one of the children, says work is impossible to find and for her husband – a farmer – the crop this year was nonexistent. They sell livestock to survive, but this is not enough to provide food for their seven, soon to be eight, children.

To detect malnutrition, the team has a basic toolkit: bracelets to measure arm circumference, height gauge and scales. Measurements are taken from all children aged from six months to five years, and also breastfeeding mothers. If the arm circumference is less than 12.5 cm, the child is weighed to determine its weight for height ratio. If it is between 60 and 80 per cent of ideal weight, the child has moderate malnutrition. If it is below 60 per cent, they have severe malnutrition.

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