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Fighting Starvation in Ethiopia

14 Jul 2003 – ADDIS ABABA – A Catholic hospital in southern Ethiopia is making giant strides in the fight against starvation in children. One of 24 feeding stations in the drought-stricken country, Bushulo Major Health Center, operated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, has inaugurated a program that treats starvation as a disease affecting the entire body – heart, liver and kidneys.

In Ethiopia, where one out of every five children dies before age 5, the mortality rate of children treated at Bushulo is less than 3 percent. The Ethiopian Ministry of Health and international health organizations have lauded the program, developed by UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.

The children who come to the health center are all suffering from severe malnutrition, said Franciscan Sister Isabel Arbide, a pediatrician at the center. They suffer from low body weight and many have stopped growing; they are smaller than other children their age, she added. “Some of the children can hardly walk when they come to us. Others are too weak to cry.”

“The families are often too embarrassed to get help for their starving children,” she said. Their condition is usually identified by government health care workers in local villages.

In their fight against famine, the government has set up supplementary feeding centers throughout the country. Aside from distributing food and water to the victims of drought and famine, special attention is given to infants and children. Workers screen the children and many receive supplementary nourishment in their villages.

“The worst cases in the surrounding area,” reported Sister Isabel, “are brought to us.” Bushulo is designated a “therapeutic” center, she explained, rather than a “supplementary” center. “The children we treat need intensive care rather than the assistance available at their local stations,” she said.

“When the children come here, each is accompanied by a care giver,” said Sister Isabel. “Mother, father or guardian, that person will be responsible for feeding the child,” she added.

“All the children receive a special milk formula fortified with vitamins and minerals,” Sister Isabel said. “The gravely ill also receive intravenous feedings,” she stated. The program is intensive. “The care giver must see that the child takes the formula every three hours, 24 hours a day.

“We also look after the parent or guardian. We feed them too,” she said. “But we insist they do not give their food to the child; only the special milk. Many children find the drink distasteful and refuse it. Eventually they will accept it,” she said. Under no circumstances are they allowed food other than their formula, she stressed. As the children improve their formula is adjusted accordingly.

The hospital staff warns the guardians that their children will lose weight in the early stages of treatment. This is because their bodies have retained water and the weight they are losing is water, Sister Isabel explained. At the same time, their young bodies are absorbing the nutrients from the special formulas.

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