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Breaking barriers of poverty to help Ana survive childhood malnutrition poverty and pain: Ana’s battle to survive childhood malnutrition

By ChildFund Australia and ChildFund Timor-Leste

In the mountainous countryside of eastern Timor-Leste, several hours from the country’s capital Dili, there is a village that is extremely poor and so remote that families living there need to walk almost three hours just to reach the nearest health facility.

It is a world away for many people in Australia, but for Ana and her family, it is home.

At only two years old, Ana has her whole life ahead of her. But extreme poverty and the challenging circumstances in which Ana was born into, are subjecting her to childhood malnutrition and preventing her from reaching her full potential.

Ana and her family live in a household of 17 people, who are together surviving on less than $4 a week. Until recently, Ana’s diet consisted of mostly porridge made from rice and water.

‘I was so afraid …  Ana didn’t want to eat’

About 12 months ago, Ana experienced childhood malnutrition. She was extremely unwell and her life was at risk. A severe worm infection worsened Ana’s condition. Her mother, Maria, noticed that Ana was losing her appetite and that she had stomach pains and diarrhoea. Eventually, Ana stopped eating and began losing the already little energy and strength that she had.

Maria was extremely worried about Ana, and called on a community health volunteer in the village for help. 

“I was so afraid when I saw Ana didn’t want to eat,” Maria said.

The community health volunteer, trained through ChildFund’s health and nutrition program, immediately referred Ana to be treated for malnutrition. 

Ana received medication to treat her worm infection and was placed in a supplementary feeding program where she received nutritious food. Eventually, Ana became stronger and her health improved.

Apart from a small grocery store 10km away that sells basic supplies, there are no health or education facilities near Ana’s community. Few families can afford their own vehicle, and public transport to the nearest health facility passes through the village only once a day. This is why community health volunteers, who live and work in the villages they serve, are essential to helping children like Ana stay safe and healthy. 

The burden of childhood malnutrition

Nearly 1 in 2 children, or 49 per cent, of children under the age of five in Timor-Leste are stunted – a condition caused by a form of malnutrition – compared to only 2 per cent in Australia.

Children like Ana are more likely to become malnourished because of poverty and a lack of access to health facilities and knowledge in their communities about good nutrition.

Childhood malnutrition can have lasting negative implications on a child, their family and community. It increases healthcare costs, and can prevent children from finishing school, which can limit their future job opportunities, perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

How can we prevent childhood malnutrition?

Nearly 1 in 2 deaths in children under the age of five are linked to a form of malnutrition.  But malnutrition in children is preventable and treatable.

With your support, we can help train community health volunteers to regularly monitor children’s growth for signs of malnutrition. These volunteers also learn how to identify common childhood illnesses and make referrals to health specialists. They also help ensure mothers attend postnatal and antenatal care, and lead mother and father support groups. The work of these local health volunteers in rural and remote communities, where health facilities and doctors, midwives and nurses are hard to access, can be lifesaving for children like Ana.

With your donation to ChildFund’s Malnutrition Appeal, we can also provide supplementary feeding programs to treat malnutrition in children, support families to access de-worming medication for their children, and run community cooking, nutrition and health workshops for parents and caregivers. 

Through a ChildFund-supported cooking workshop, Maria learnt about the nutrition content of various local foods, and how to include some of these foods in Ana’s diet. 

Today, Ana has fully recovered from childhood malnutrition, and Maria incorporates vegetables such as moringa, a highly nutritious plant that she sometimes gets from neighbours or other members of her community, in the rice porridge she makes for Ana. 

Good nutrition is essential for a child’s health and development, which is why it is a key focus of ChildFund’s health programs. The first 1,000 days – from the time a woman becomes pregnant to her child’s second birthday –  is critical to a child’s healthy development. 

ChildFund’s health and nutrition program in Timor-Leste focuses on supporting mothers like Maria to care for themselves and their children during these first 1,000 days, and longer. Make a donation to ChildFund’s Malnutrition Appeal today and you can help to train community health volunteers, assist parents to access child health support groups, or facilitate cooking workshops for families.

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