Bringing Even the Sickest Child Back From the Verge of Starvation

Florian Lems/MSF


When our emergency teams arrive at a village ravaged by violence or devastated by a natural disaster, there’s one lifesaving item we bring that costs just 50 cents.
It’s a simple packet of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) that fits in the palm of your hand. They are amazingly cheap, but they’re also amazingly effective. For a child teetering on the brink of starvation these small packets can be the difference between life and death.

During an emergency, young children are fleeing for safety or cut off from food and medical care, putting them at high risk for malnutrition. But innovative, lifesaving tools like therapeutic food packets help Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) quickly treat as many children as we can.

Emergencies in South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic mean thousands of children are suffering from malnutrition right now, but with the proper treatment they can survive.

When our emergency response teams encounter malnutrition we know we need to act quickly. Without swift intervention, severe malnutrition ravages the bodies of young children, causing them to suffer debilitating lifelong consequences.

Doctors Without Borders teams must quickly assess which children are at greatest risk of dying from malnutrition. We do this by measuring the mid-upper-arm circumference (MUAC) of children with a color-coded bracelet.

Most of the children we diagnose are treated with RUTF, a milk-based peanut paste packed with the special mix of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that can help a lethargic, gravely ill child thrive again.

The most severely malnourished children, those who have no appetite—or who suffer from malaria, pneumonia, or other diseases—are hospitalized and treated at our inpatient centers. These children are at the greatest risk of death and require intensive, round-the-clock medical treatment. But with proper care, most do survive and can soon be discharged to an outpatient program.

When our emergency medical teams rush in to respond to a crisis, the threat of malnutrition is almost never far behind.

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Biltine 10 Sept. 2012: 18 Years Old Ashta Mohamet and her daughter during a consultation by MSF nurse Jean Blaise Djedouboum at MSF's Ambulant Therapeutic Feeding Center (ATFC) in Koudiguine. Since April MSF runs a feeding programme in 11 health centers in Biltine district. In the beginning of September, around 900 children were receiving weekly rations of Ready to Use Therapeutic Food, with approximately 100 new admissions per week. In Biltine in Eastern Chad a MSF survey identified a high rate of malnutrition, prompting the organization to start a feeding programme for children under five years.
Florian Lems/MSF