Malnutrition is endemic in Africa’s Sahel, an arid region in between the Sahara desert and the savannas of sub-Saharan Africa, which is often affected by drought. Due to a lack of essential vitamins and minerals, children with malnutrition suffer from restricted growth and develop after-effects, which can be disabling in the long term. The result is not always fatal, but the impact on their quality of life can be devastating.
Thanks to Belgian funding (DGD Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid), Handicap International has created a project called ESSPOIR, an acronym close to the word for “hope” in French. This project aims to help children with malnutrition in the Sahel and give them a chance to flourish.
"Physical therapy can make all the difference to malnourished children,” says Eric Weerts, a Handicap International rehabilitation specialist. “These children are very weak and need to recover their motor functions if they are to grow normally. This is why, as well as fighting malnutrition by distributing food supplements, it is vital to also provide physical therapy and emotional stimulation, in order to overcome any negative effects on the children's growth."
Handicap International's project, which was launched in September, focuses on three areas: physical therapy, emotional stimulation, and psychological follow-up.
"The emotional recovery of malnourished children is as important as their physical recovery," says Weerts. "Mothers often distance themselves from a malnourished child as they think the child will die. This emotional distance stunts the child's physical development. That is why we try to stimulate the physical and psychological connection between mother and child through touch. Physical progress can then be very quick—young infants can sometimes catch up months of growth. Sometimes a child suddenly starts crawling or walking like any other child of the same age."
The ESSPOIR project will last for two years. To ensure the sustainability of the project, Handicap International is working together with the existing healthcare structures and will train local care service providers and nutrition specialists. The organization is also working with the authorities on the response times of health structures to ensure they can act quickly in the event of an imminent food crisis.