by Marie-Agnes Heine
WHO Communications Officer

Port-au-Prince — A program aimed at preventing acute malnutrition is helping vulnerable Haitian earthquake survivors, like new mom Jessica, protect their health in the wake of the 12 January earthquake.

"We are living on the street, but I hope this will pass," said Jessica, who was eight months pregnant when her family home in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, was destroyed in the disaster. "I am grateful for the biscuits and for the food. This will help us to get over the next days."

Jessica, 21, gave birth to her daughter, Maryjean, 17 days after the quake. She is among 16,000 women living in more than 300 temporary settlements being targeted by a program to distribute food supplements, including three-week rations of high-energy biscuits, to prevent malnutrition. The program aims to reach a further 53,000 children aged 6 months to 5 years.

The program is being run on behalf of the Haitian Ministry of Public Health by the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), the World Food Program, the U.N. Population Fund and UNICEF.

The threat of increased acute malnutrition is a major concern for all involved in the humanitarian response.

Before the disaster, nutrition indicators were already poor in Haiti. For example, chronic malnutrition in children under 5 was estimated at 32 percent, while acute malnutrition (GAM) was at 4.5 percent. The prevalence of low birth weight was estimated at 25 percent, which is a strong indication of poor maternal nutritional status. Some 60 percent of children aged 6 to 59 months suffered from anemia, as did 46 percent of women aged 15 to 49.

Under the nutrition scheme, pregnant and lactating mothers and children aged 3 to 5 years receive three weeks' rations of high-energy biscuits, while infants aged 6 to 35 months are provided with supplementary Plumpy, a highly nutritious peanut-based paste enriched with micronutrients.

The program also aims to identify children suffering from severe malnutrition, who are referred to nutrition therapy centers.

Sixty-six students have been recruited to visit the different temporary settlements to identify women and children eligible for the program and to carry out the distributions. Working in pairs, the students contact local committees about the program and its objectives and inform and register the recipients.

One such team found Jessica and referred her to an outpatient health center, where she hopes she can learn how to start breastfeeding Maryjean. The food supplements nourish her hope for improvement of her situation in the near future.

"It is good that we have some food now. I want my daughter to be safe, and I very much hope that the government and the relief agencies will also help us move out of here before the rains start," said Jessica.

Flash Appeal project: As part of the overall response to the health crisis, PAHO/WHO is working to prevent, screen for and treat acute malnutrition within a planned US$20.7 million project [pg1]to reactivate basic health care servicesin Haiti. This will include training staff to manage cases of acute malnutrition.