Kinshasa — About 530,000 children younger than five and more than a million women need urgent nutritional support in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says the Ministry of Health. Officials are calling for more resources for prevention and treatment and for agricultural production to be improved.
"At least 700 children under-five die each day in the five provinces where only 20 percent of children have a varied diet," Victor Makwenge, the Minister of Health, said.
An estimated one million women aged 15-49 are malnourished in Equateur, Orientale, Occidental, Katanga and Maniema provinces, Makwenge added.
A 2009 study by the national nutrition programme in the provinces, which represent about half the national population, found global acute malnutrition rates above the 15 percent emergency threshold in children under five in some regions.
The rate was highest at 16 percent in Orientale and Occidental provinces, 15 in Equateur and 14 and 11 in Katanga and Maniema, respectively. The study was funded by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP).
In the Popokabaka territory of Bandundu Province at least 1,310 malnourished children have been registered at CARITAS Germany feeding centres. Of these, 982 are still malnourished and 12 have died, according to CARITAS.
Malnutrition remains a serious threat to the survival and development of children and women in the DRC, noted UNICEF's representative in the country, Pierrette Vu Thi.
"Studies have shown that the risk of death is four times higher for moderately malnourished children... the risk is eight times higher for those with severe acute malnutrition than in healthy children," said Vu Thi.
Years of conflict and instability in the east and northeast, as well as a financial crisis affecting the mining sector in central and southeast DRC, had adversely affected an already precarious household nutrition situation.
Vu Thi noted that limited access to healthcare and potable water, poor hygiene and feeding habits and the lack of agricultural inputs as well as the practice of monoculture, were also to blame.
Early marriages and the low socio-economic status of women were contributory factors, she added.
According to recent assessments, WFP said, 75 percent of the country is food insecure. Only the Kivu provinces have lower levels of malnutrition due to a large aid agency presence.
"We need an integrated multi-sectoral response. We should increase the health budget and review our nutrition policy," said Makwenge.
The government and other nutrition stakeholders are set to establish nutritional surveillance and rapid alert systems in the next year. In the medium and long term, they envisage the allocation of adequate resources to various health sectors, agriculture, water and sanitation, family planning and the ranking of nutrition as a priority in the national budget.
Inadequate funding has remained a significant barrier. In 2010, at least US$6 million was allocated to the health sector; $49 million is required in the short term and $127 million in the long term, according to the health ministry.
According to Vu Thi, UNICEF spends at least $11 million annually in malnutrition prevention and treatment in the DRC. WFP is also providing nutritional support to at least one million vulnerable people, including 27,000 pregnant and nursing mothers, 400,000 school-children and more than 177,000 malnourished children.
At least 896,600 children could die if malnutrition is not eradicated by 2015, warned Makwenge.