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Dispatches from Africa: Stunting More Dangerous Than a Movie Set

Hollywood stuntmen -- like Bud Ekins, Paul Manz, Yakima Canutt and others -- face life-threatening risks to bring danger to life in breathtaking performances. Through extraordinary athleticism and skill, they survive falling from skyscrapers, rolling in flames, and crawling away from five rollovers in a burning, speeding, crashed up car. We marvel at their risky job. Hollywood is dangerous. But this week I met a kind of "stunting" that has no director saying “cut,” and no "going home" at the end of the day.

Stunting is the clinical term for the insidious robbery that happens to millions of children because of malnutrition. Stunting is when growth falls at least two standard deviations below normal. What if month after month your child's growth plummeted down two standard deviations and kept falling? And all it would take is simple nutrition to change the trend. I know I would be ready to leap through a flaming inferno to get nutrition for that child, but what if there was no food to change it – no matter my passion, maternal drive, or willingness to sacrifice?

If stunting happens in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life (from conception to 2 years old), its effects on the brain and the body are irreversible. Now, consider the 19 countries of the world where stunting is robbing healthy futures of 30 to 40 percent of the children. Their precarious days are fragile because they often cannot survive even a routine childhood disease like measles. Stunting is what makes “malnutrition the world’s most serious health problem and the single biggest contributor to child mortality,” according to the World Bank.

So who are the heroes on this set? In part, you are. The U.S. churches, the U.S. government, and U.S. medical and nutrition specialists are joining with health and community heroes in Africa and the rest of the developing world.

A hospital we visited recently in Zambia was a pediatric malnutrition unit with mothers and fathers at the bedsides of tiny children.  Many of the children were being treated successfully to bring them back to normal weights. But the number of children in the ward had tripled, mushrooming to more than 140 in one week. "It will continue to grow," the attendant noted sadly. “We expect it to triple; it is the beginning of the hunger season.”

The children were, of course, at different stages of malnutrition and each family worthy of a story all their own. I will just mention briefly a beautiful young mother with her son Godfrey who was 1 year and 5 months old. He had been in treatment two weeks, and his mother Ruth was delighted that he was almost ready for discharge. We studied his growth chart where she showed us how he had dropped weight initially when he came into the hospital. The doctors told us that was a result of the edema that results from the malnutrition. Once the fluid is gone, then the child can turn the trend and start to gain weight.

This was true of Godfrey’s chart, and after day three, he began to gain weight properly. Ruth was so proud and relieved at his progress, that when I asked, “Is he stronger now?” she gladly lifted him up from the bed and put him down to show us that he could walk like a happy toddler -- leaning-forward while taking a few steps to a green toy car. It was joy and hope personified. This was a moment of universal connection as I was reminded of all the precious toddlers that I have cheered on as they have trundled toward my waiting arms. As it is with each child, so it is with the world.

There is a simple plan to tackle the lethal danger of stunting. Nations, groups, women, and parents are committing to scaling up nutrition in cost-effective ways. At home and abroad, join the effort! Target stunting in your ministries, philanthropy, and charitable efforts. Maintain U.S. aid and support. Act on your faith. End hunger.

Suzii Paynter is the director of advocacy and care at the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

 

« Dispatches from Africa: Girls Must Not Be Passed Over for Nutrition and Care Rep. Dave Camp: Food is a Basic Need »

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