Monday, October 24, 2011

The First 1,000 Days: Life and Death

On October 6-17, Stephen M. Colecchi, director of USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace, traveled to Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania as part of an ecumenical delegation of Christian leaders sponsored by Bread for the World. This is the first of a four-part series in which Dr. Colecchi shares his experiences of Africa, where he witnessed firsthand the plight of poverty and malnutrition faced by many people, especially children.

The contrast could not have been starker: tiny listless children, two in each hospital bed, attended by their concerned mothers; jubilant women chanting and dancing as smiling children angled to get their pictures taken.

I encountered both poignant scenes during a recent visit to Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania with an ecumenical delegation of Christian leaders sponsored by Bread for the World. In a way the two images capture both the problem and the solution to mother and child nutrition. Our delegation visited these African countries to learn more about the 1,000 days movement, which aims to improve maternal and child nutrition during the critical first 1,000 days of life from conception to age two.

Our visit to the Pediatric Malnutrition Ward of the University Training Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia, illustrated the problem. These were the “lucky” children whose parents got their malnourished children to the acute care hospital in time to bring them back from the brink of death. Under-nutrition causes more than death. Especially during the first 1,000 days, it causes permanent life-long damage—physical stunting, increased vulnerability to disease, and intellectual impairment.

But in all three countries we also encountered a solution. Our visit to a village in southern Malawi, where we were welcomed by the chanting women and their children, provided powerful evidence of the effectiveness of U.S. international assistance and the work of the Catholic Church. The Diocese of Chikwawa, with the help of Catholic Relief Services, is implementing the Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement program (WALA).

WALA uses simple, cost-effective techniques to improve maternal and child nutrition and reduce disease. Mothers and children are healthier, and the village has not had a cholera outbreak in more than two years, even when a neighboring village suffered cholera. That was something to sing and dance about and they did. In my next blog post I’ll explore what worked and why.

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