Children are sometimes being packed in two to a bed in the dark, airless wards of Conakry’s only children’s hospital as the facility copes with double the number of starving children now than three years ago.
There were 623 malnourished children admitted to the Donka Hospital Institute of Nutrition and Child Health between January and the end of September, the last time the quarterly records were compiled.
In 2005, 601 children were admitted in the whole year, almost 150 more than in 2004, and over 300 more than in 2003. Hospital staff said they expected the 2006 figure to break 800 by the end of the year.
The Donka Hospital institute is the only children’s hospital in Conakry, and the largest specialist unit in the country.
The hospital’s records, seen by IRIN on Friday, do not distinguish between severe and acute malnutrition. Both forms result in sudden weight loss and can lead to death if not treated quickly with specialised foods. Even after the child’s body has filled out, the boy or girl may still suffer a lifetime of physical and mental retardation.
“There are many more cases in Conakry that still do not get reported or seen,” said a nutritionist as she totted up the monthly numbers meticulously listed in frayed, well-thumbed notebooks.
Guinea has rich mineral wealth, fertile land and no shortage of above-ground water, setting it apart from its sandier, drier and hotter neighbours to the north and east.
However, the country’s donors say decades of financial mismanagement have wrought havoc on Guinea’s economy, while corruption has ensured what little profits are made get siphoned off by the country’s elites. Despite the abundance of agricultural land and waterlogged areas suitable as rice paddies, most rice is imported from abroad.
“We are getting many more severe cases of children with malnutrition now,” Mamadou Cellou Balde, the centre’s director, confirmed over the cries of wailing babies. “We have seen a significant increase during the last three years.”
Poverty to blame
Salimatou Camara, a gaunt man in his 30s, who pushes a coffee cart around Conakry and sells scrap electronics on the side, brought his 23-month-old daughter, Fatima, and her mother to the Donka Hospital institute last Wednesday when the child’s stomach started ballooning - a telltale sign of extreme hunger.
For Camara, like most other worried parents that IRIN interviewed at the Donka Hospital, price rises forced him to reduce the family’s rice rations by a third. Rice makes up the mainstay of the family’s diet, with chicken, fish and vegetables rare luxuries.
Only when the children cry from hunger do the adults give them food from their plates and go hungry themselves. “All the family is making sacrifices. My wife has stopped asking me to get things because she knows it’s not possible,” Camara said.
Inflation in Guinea has pushed 30 percent in the last two years, fuel prices have rocketed by 288 percent in the same period, and unemployment has boomed even among the fortunate, educated minority.
The centre’s staff agreed rising prices are blocking parents from access to the variety of foods that would nourish their children properly. But they also said widespread lack of education had left many people ignorant about the need to give their children a range of foods, not just to fill their stomachs with grains such as rice.
Small numbers of schools and a lack of cash by most to pay fees or buy uniforms means 70 percent of Guinean's are illiterate, according to the UN.
“Very often parents do not diversify their children’s diets or they introduce the diversity too late. Before six months most children do get breast milk, but then their parents start too late with diversity,” director Balde said.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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