Undernutrition and stunting in Malawi

Photo by Korinne Thorne.

Photo by Korinne Thorne

By Jessica Scates, Andrew Claffey, Jennifer George, and Korinne Thorne

Published January 15, 2019

The developmental, economic, social, and medical impact of undernutrition is serious and lasting for individuals and their families. Around 45%, nearly half of deaths among children under 5 years of age are linked to undernutrition – primarily in low- and middle-income countries. Children and families suffering undernutrition face increased health care costs, reduced productivity, and slow economic growth – three things that perpetuate a cycle of poverty and ill health. 

The most important lesson they learned was the value of working alongside a community to support their ongoing efforts.

In July 2018, three UB medical students Andrew Claffey, Jennifer George, and Korinne Thorne traveled to Nkope Hills, Malawi to collaborate with the local community and a branch of the organization Naturally Africa Volunteers (NAV). With funding support from the Community for Global Health Equity, Andrew, Jennifer, and Korinne aimed to understand undernutrition and assist local organizations to plan interventions to combat it.

Malawi is a landlocked country in southeast Africa. Drastic seasonal changes and a lack of crop diversity, food insecurity, lack of resources, and widespread poverty contribute to undernutrition. 70% of children are stunted. They suffer impaired growth and development from poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation. In partnership with NAV program staff, Andrew, Jennifer, and Korinne took height and weight measurements of children, quantifying the extent undernutrition affected the local population.

Andrew, Jennifer, and Korinne worked with local organizations to plan interventions to combat undernutrition. In partnership with local farmers, they identified potential avenues for increased crop diversity and conducted a cost analysis for adding nutritional value to porridge for a supplemental feeding program. They helped to develop home-based-care group sessions focused on nutrition habits and positive health behaviors to improve quality of life.

Reflecting on their experiences in Malawi, Korinne, Jennifer, and Andrew learned a lot. Amidst unforeseen complications, Korinne learned to value expecting the unexpected and to embrace fully the daily nuances of working overseas. Her passion for practicing global health increased. Noting with urgency the need for collaborations to fight undernutrition, Jennifer appreciated the opportunity to develop relationships with the families she worked with. Andrew’s perspective on life shifted; by facing the realities of poverty and limited resources available to the community, he reoriented his definition of success. All three noted one of the most important lesson they learned was the value of working alongside a community to support their ongoing efforts.

Andrew, Jennifer, and Korinne, now 2nd-year medical students focus on their studies in Buffalo. However, they continue to take leadership positions to aid and assist low-resource populations. Originally, Andrew, Jennifer, and Korinne intended to pilot a survey measuring the multifaceted factors leading to undernutrition and stunting. This past month, the Malawian government approved their survey. NAV staff intend to survey 600 homes by the end of 2019. Andrew, Jennifer, and Korinne continue to act as project leads and hope to expand their team to include multiple disciplines and future trips.