Greater access is the key to reducing malnutrition

 31 May 2017 - 11:10

There is no place for malnutrition in our world, and yet it exists. In numerous countries around the world, men, women and children are denied access to food. We cannot accept this, but the sense of moral outrage we feel must be equalled by the will to act.

Phrases like ‘malnutrition’ suggest that there isn’t enough food, but in reality this is seldom the cause of people’s hunger. While food supplies and harvests may yield precarious supplies, this is not the sole reason people starve. The key to reducing malnutrition is access. If people could travel freely, without fear of soldiers or restrictions, if international organisations were able to deliver food supplies and medical treatment without let or hindrance, the size of the challenge we face would be greatly reduced.

Our objective at Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is to bring people greater access to medical treatment, to nutrition and to a dignified standard of care, with no ex-ceptions. We are single-minded in our approach to medical care, and we are independent of government agendas. We can afford to be this way, because our supporters give us the freedom to act, without heed to politics or prejudice.

More than five million people around the world donate to MSF, because they too believe that everyone deserves access to medical care, and they recognise that by contributing, they are not spectators, they are saving lives.

In South Sudan, a protracted and ongoing conflict is at the heart of a nutrition crisis. Earlier this year* MSF teams encountered very high levels of malnutrition amongst children in the areas of Dablual and Mirniyal in northern Mayendit country. They found that 25 per cent of children under five were suffering from global acute malnutrition and up to 8.1 percent of under-fives had se-vere acute malnutrition. Meanwhile in Borno state Nigeria, teams from Médecins Sans Fron-tières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) treated 18,403 children for malnutrition between June and December of 2016. These situations continue to develop with few signs of improvement. Many thousands are now dependent on humanitarian aid for survival.

If the root causes of malnutrition are complex, the treatment methods are often strikingly simple. Over the last decade, MSF has shown that malnutrition in children can be treated on a large scale with an outpatient medical protocol using ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF). This RUTF costs $40 per serving. Most children treated with RUTF on an outpatient basis (children who suffer from no other illnesses and retain their appetite are sent home with their families, and supplied with RUTF and weekly checkups) recover in just over a month, and cure rates usually exceed 90 per cent. With that in mind, the outpatient strategy is remarkably successful.

While the treatment methods can be simple, the underlying causes often restrict patients’ access to this treatment. Particularly in conflict settings, movement and transport can pose significant challenges to receiving basic healthcare and sustenance. However, we must treat those we can, wherever we can. This will not change.

We might ask ourselves: how, in this world of plenty, can the spectre of malnutrition endure? It’s a worthwhile question, but when time is of the essence, and the stakes are equal to human lives, we might prefer to ask: what is in my power to fight this? Yes, the situation is dire, but we must not be stunned into inertia, because for every crisis comes a tipping point for change. And that change is only brought about by individuals.

Each of us has the power to give something, and the power to give, is the power to make a change.

The writer is Executive Director, Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Border regional branch office in UAE.