Pavi Mfuma who has cerebral palsy is supported by HI staff in the DRC

Breaking the cycle of malnutrition with physical therapy

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Pavi Mfuma, 5, who has cerebral palsy receives rehabilitation from Handicap International in the DRC.

At least 820,000 children are at risk of developing severe acute malnutrition this year in South Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, and Ethiopia as a result of the food crisis sweeping across regions in Africa.

Handicap International is launching new program to help malnourished children. “Simply providing the calories and nutrients is not enough,” explains Rozenn Botokro, a Handicap International rehabilitation specialist, and a pioneer of a stimulative physical therapy method which “breaks the cycle” of malnutrition, she explains.

"The body of a child with this level of malnutrition has been seriously damaged and we need to get them moving, thinking, and playing again, otherwise they will not fully recover and may become malnourished again,” she says.

Indeed, the body of a child with severe acute malnutrition is visibly deteriorated. They have thin limbs, loose skin, low body temperature, and bloating caused by water retention. Their immune systems are unable to fight off infection. They are nine times more likely to die from pneumonia, malaria, measles, and diarrhoeal diseases.

Handicap International is rolling out this specialized, stimulative physical therapy in Ethiopia, while other teams assess the potential for interventions in Somaliland and Uganda. “Physical therapy may not seem to be an urgent need in such a dire situation, but it is," Botokro says.

Children under five who survive severe acute malnutrition suffer major trauma when they would normally be developing basic physical and intellectual abilities. Instead of learning to sit, crawl, observe, and solve problems, their bodies use all of their energy to solely survive. If their suffering is prolonged, these children are likely to experience developmental delays and, in severe cases, can be left permanently disabled. 

Handicap International has worked with children suffering from malnutrition for many years. Our rehabilitation specialists have developed proven methods of stimulative physical therapies that work alongside emergency nutrition, rehydration, and essential medical care that works to give children the greatest chance of survival and enhance their future quality of life. 

Our teams prioritize building a supportive network around a malnourished child by working with recovering families. Interactive play, exercise, and basic physical therapy led by parents or caregivers has been shown to lead to improved growth and development of motor skills. 

The stimulative physical therapy programs will run in tandem with existing emergency response activities run by Handicap International's health partners. The programs will target displaced populations, where the proportion of children with severe acute malnutrition is particularly high. This new treatment method ensures not only that children survive but that they grow up to live healthy, independent lives.