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Friday, March 20, 2009

Malnutrition in Liberia

MONROVIA, 19 March 2009 (IRIN) - Health officials have launched a strategy to tackle hunger in Liberia, where 37 percent of children under five suffer chronic malnutrition.

Stella Subah, nutrition adviser at the Health Ministry, told IRIN malnutrition will kill 74,000 children in Liberia by 2015 if urgent action is not taken.

Chronic malnutrition causes stunting in nearly one-third of Liberian children and leaves one in five underweight, according to Subah. A further seven percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition.

The policy commits the government to improving food security for the majority of Liberians, decreasing dependence in imported foods and boosting education strategies to help prevent malnutrition.

“This policy refocuses nutrition and puts it where it ought to be – on the higher agenda of the government,” said John Agbor, head of child survival at UNICEF. This is the first nutrition policy the government has developed since before the war broke out in 1989.

“Malnutrition…is a major problem here, because all the factors contributing to it still exist,” said UNICEF nutrition specialist Kinday Ndella Samba. “You still have high rate of poverty, poor access to water and sanitation and a lack of health care.”

Only 30 professionally trained government medical doctors work in Liberia, along with 46 NGO doctors, for a population of 3.3 million.

Moderate hunger has been endemic in Liberia for years, but thousands of additional people were put at risk of acute malnutrition in 2008 because of rising global food and fuel prices, according to aid agency Action Against Hunger (ACF).

Liberia imports 90 percent of its rice, and prices have not dropped since they shot up to US$35 for a 50-kilogram bag in early 2008 – the average monthly salary for a security guard in the capital Monrovia. Liberians told IRIN 50kg of rice will feed a family of seven for two weeks.

Malnutrition in turn hampers economic growth, with conditions such as anemia and iodine deficiency lowering the country’s economic productivity by $431,000 each year, Subah told IRIN.


“If we want to address the issue, we have to address the underlying factors, such as food security, lack of access to water and sanitation, the failure of most mothers to breastfeed their babies and mothers not taking their babies for regular vaccines,” Subah said.

Improper care and feeding of children stems in part from low education rates and high rates of teenage pregnancy, according to William Dakel, director of local NGO Aid for the Needy Development Program (ANDP).

Forty-six percent of teenage girls are pregnant in Liberia, according to 2007 figures – the latest available. UNICEF says just 39 percent of girls attended primary school in 2007.

Agbor urges donors to maintain support to aid groups and the government to fight chronic malnutrition. “There are still a lot of children out there who need care, and if we have enough funding we can start to integrate aid groups’ work into government facilities.”

ANDP’s Dakel said: “It took us 14 years to fight a war, and it will not just take overnight to take care of all our problems. Donors and partners need to be patient.”


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