OPINION: Nutrition programs for children born with cleft need to be strengthened

OPINION: Nutrition programs for children born with cleft need to be strengthened

By Jane Ngige

As the world marks the Day of the African Child on June 16, 2020, it is a welcome sigh of relief that Smile Train partners in Africa are cautiously resuming cleft surgeries with strict Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) measures to protect themselves and patients against contracting the deadly COVID-19 virus. Thus, children will be able to receive free cleft surgeries, enabling them to live a full and productive life.

COVID-19 has exposed glaring challenges in healthcare systems across the world. It was a wake-up call that for Universal Health Coverage to be achieved, many of the solutions would have to be homegrown.

Telehealth is also a unique frontier that is catching on quickly, but caution must be observed that patients who struggle to put a meal on their table are not forgotten.

Smile Train globally leveraged on telehealth, where possible to provide comprehensive cleft care including speech therapy and nutrition programs while building capacity for healthcare professionals to provide higher standards of care during lockdown measures.

Comprehensive Cleft Care

A research by the World Food Program estimates that 20 million people in East Africa are food insecure with the number likely to skyrocket to 43 million due to COVID-19 and its consequences.

There are thousands of children in Africa likely to fall into these disheartening statistics. Children born with cleft are unable to eat, speak or breath and an approximate 10% are likely to die before their first birthday since their nutritional needs are greater with a unique feeding approach.

As children await their surgeries, nutritionists like Miriam Nabie of IcFEM Dreamland Hospital, a Smile Train partner in Kenya noted that many of her patients who travelled long distances to receive care were relegated to accessing the nearest clinic to measure their children’s weight, then text her the measurements.

For severe cases, she facilitated their transport and a special unit within the hospital to monitor them. With restrictions on movement having been imposed, it is indeed hard to administer treatment from a distance.  This was a similar story for nutritionists across Africa.

Capacity Building

It is not enough that we speak about nutrition without building the capacity of healthcare providers. Smile Train is looking to expand its network of nutritionists across the continent.

Miriam has also been sharing her knowledge on cleft nutrition with medical providers across East Africa, including nutritionists, nurses and surgeons, educating them on providing nutrition rehabilitation to cleft children and the importance of having a round-table with nutritionists.

The greatest insight out of these trainings is the need for professionals in different fields understanding each other’s significance in providing comprehensive cleft care.

To increase access to nutritional support for children born with cleft in Eastern Africa region, Smile Train will be supporting nutrition programs in over 50 partner hospitals within the next year. However, we need concerted efforts between governments and policy makers to prevent hunger and malnutrition from becoming another global crisis facing children in Africa.

Jane Ngige is the Smile Train Program Director for East Africa