Evidence supports coupling prevention with treatment of acute malnutrition

January 2009

After the Niger food crisis of 2004-2005, programs for community-based treatment of acute malnutrition found that the prevalence of acute malnutrition, although reduced from the level during the crisis, remained unacceptably high. In an anthropological study published in the January 2009 issue of Disasters, researchers investigated social factors that may predispose infants and young children to acute malnutrition and contribute to its high prevalence. The authors used a variety of qualitative research methods to elicit local understanding and coping practices, and they uncovered several harmful infant and young child feeding practices. The majority of mothers initiated breastfeeding late, failed to exclusively breastfeed, and stopped breastfeeding early. A new pregnancy was the most common reason for early breastfeeding cessation, leading mothers to wean their children abruptly. Complementary foods were dilute and contained large amounts of water, and, since children older than 1 year fed themselves from a common plate, adults had little influence over what or how much children consumed.

The authors suggested that social factors influence decision-making about resource allocation for children and aggravate the situation. For example, families were reluctant to invest extra resources for a sick or malnourished child because of their persistent poverty and livelihood insecurity. Based on the findings, the authors recommended that treatment-based nutrition programs should include long-term approaches to improve infant and young child feeding. Approaches, they suggested, should build on knowledge of local realities, constraints, beliefs, and practices, and should support sustainable improvements for children’s diets through agricultural approaches, or creation of local versions of nutritional rehabilitation foods.

The social context of childcare practices and child malnutrition in Niger’s recent food crisis