Like most medical conditions, malnutrition best addressed and treated when it’s detected early. Mass screenings of children under five years old, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women – the people most vulnerable to hunger and its deadly impacts – are an effective way to identify cases and to help ensure that those suffering from malnutrition get critical medical care before it’s too late.
Mass screenings are one way Action Against Hunger works to sustainably improve nutrition among mothers and young children in the Kayes, Kita, and Sikasso areas of Mali. In the western region of Kayes, for example, our teams recently coordinated a mass nutrition screening of more than 70,000 children aged 6 to 59 months. It showed that 2% of children were suffering from moderate acute malnutrition and 0.5% were suffering from severe acute malnutrition, the deadliest form of hunger.
“In our region, very high levels of malnutrition are observed from June to September,” says Dr. Samou Diarra, Nutrition Focal Point for the Kayes Health District. “This screening campaign made it possible to detect cases in time and ensure their immediate management.”
Community health volunteers make screenings possible. They have been trained to accurately detect malnutrition, and – because they live in the communities where they work – they have earned the trust of the local population and can bridge the gap between families and local health services.
To detect malnutrition, volunteers wrap MUAC (mid-upper arm circumference) bands around children's upper arms. The color-coded tape shows if a child is healthy (green), moderately malnourished (yellow), or severely malnourished (red). In addition to learning how to correctly use the MUAC band, volunteers are also trained on the evaluation of edema (swelling of the limbs, a sign of poor nutrition), how to correctly enter data on the scorecards and reference sheets, and how to follow up with malnourished children at the health center and later at home to ensure that they are treated and that they regain their health.
The volunteers immediately refer malnourished children to local health centers, where they are treated with ready-to-use therapeutic foods like Plumpy’Nut. These foods are highly effective, cost-efficient, and safe for children suffering from malnutrition, who have difficulty digesting complex foods. More than 90% of the children who complete treatment for malnutrition recover.
“Action Against Hunger is behind all the great victories against malnutrition the district has achieved,” says Dr. Diarra, who has worked with the organization since 2017, pointing to SMART survey data that shows a decrease in the district’s global acute malnutrition rate from 14.2% in 2017 to 5.6% in 2020. “Our experience in recent years has shown us that prevention is key to winning the fight against malnutrition in all its forms.”
This work was part of the Integrated Fight Against Chronic Malnutrition in Mali project, funded by Global Affairs Canada, which aims to sustainably improve the nutrition status of children under five and women of reproductive age. The five-year project will address three major causes of chronic malnutrition: access to adequate care, a healthy environment, and adequate nutrition.