Mobilizing Communities to Improve Nutrition in Mali

Local health champions deliver big impact
Ben Stevens / i-Images for Action Against Hunger, Mali
Ben Stevens / i-Images for Action Against Hunger, Mali

Editors’ Note: This is an edited version of a story originally published by Action Against Hunger’s operations in the U.K. 

“A few weeks ago, my daughter Awa became very ill. She was listless and weak,” says Oumou Macalou, a 25-year-old mother of four. “Thankfully, she’s getting better now. She is interacting with the nurses and pays attention to every little thing. She’s even smiling every now and then.”

Oumou Macalou was able to ensure her daughter Awa received treatment for malnutrition, thanks to training from Action Against Hunger and help from community health workers. 
Photo: Ben Stevens/i-Images for Action Against Hunger, Mali

When Oumou noticed that Awa was sick, she took her to the nearest health center, where Awa was diagnosed with severe, lifethreatening malnutrition. The community health workers immediately referred Oumou and Awa to the inpatient therapeutic treatment center at the regional hospital in Kita. Awa was admitted, and she will stay at the treatment center until her health improves enough for her to be discharged for ongoing outpatient treatment.

Not long ago, it was nearly impossible for mothers like Oumou to get the urgent treatment they needed for their children, mostly because health facilities were located too far away from the isolated rural villages where they lived. Getting to the health centers required walking for days.

“Malnutrition is a huge problem in Mali. Many parents struggle to access healthcare services because to do so, they have to walk long distances and leave their other children behind at home without anyone to care for them,” says Dr. Silla, who oversees health services in Kita.

Together with the innocent foundation, Action Against Hunger is working to bring treatment for severe acute malnutrition directly to communities in Mali, saving parents long and expensive trips to and from a regional hospital. In 2014, we launched an ambitious research project to find out if community health workers could effectively expand the package of basic health services they already provide to include not only screening for malnutrition, but also treatment.

By training community health workers to screen and treat children for severe malnutrition at home, instead of expecting parents to walk as far as 25 miles to the nearest clinic every week for treatment, Action Against Hunger’s program aims to empower community health workers not only to help save lives, but also to partner with mothers and other caregivers to spot the warning signs of malnutrition and get early treatment to prevent children from becoming seriously ill in the first place.

The goal is to ensure that only severely malnourished children with complications, who need intensive inpatient care, will have to be referred by the community health workers to the hospital. In fact, thanks to Action Against Hunger’s program, transportation to the hospital is now available for families who need it.

The initial findings from our study are very promising: in the villages where we implemented the program, community health workers were able to double the number of children who received treatment for severe acute malnutrition.

Mothers are a force for change in malnutrition prevention 

At the hospital in Kita, Action Against Hunger provides training and support for the nutrition unit. With our help, the health teams are educating mothers on proper nutrition and feeding practices for young children and teaching them how to spot early signs of malnutrition so that they can seek care immediately.

Action Against Hunger provided treatment that saved Roko Diallo’s life. Her mother told us, “Roko’s older brothers cannot wait for her to come back home. They love her a lot.”
Photo: Ben Stevens/i-Images for Action Against Hunger, Mali

“We organize educational activities that help parents understand how to prevent children from relapsing into malnutrition,” says Dr. Kodio Ibrahim, the director of the hospital’s nutrition ward. “Through theater, songs, and group discussions, we help mothers connect with each other to form peer support groups, and we help them learn the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for infants, and balanced nutritious diets for children.”

For Dr. Ibrahim and his team, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing healthy children leave his nutrition unit. “As a dad, I want my child to be healthy, just like any dad anywhere in the world. We all want our children to thrive and grow up to become healthy adults. We want them to pursue their studies, stand on their own two feet, earn a living, and have good lives.”

Mothers and children with the health team at Kita hospital. 
Photo: Ben Stevens/i-Images for Action Against Hunger, Mali

Thanks to Action Against Hunger, mothers like Oumou have a better chance at seeing all their children grow up healthy. As Awa’s doctor says: “Now that she’s regaining her strength, she’ll be playing with her siblings and friends again, just like any other child around the world should be able to do.”

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Action Against Hunger is a global humanitarian organization that takes decisive action against the causes and effects of hunger. We save the lives of malnourished children. We ensure families can access clean water, food, training, and health care. We enable entire communities to be free from hunger.