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Thousands of children have died from malnutrition in the past five years

In the past three years 2,818 children under the age of five have died from malnutrition in hospitals around SA, says the national health department. File photo.
In the past three years 2,818 children under the age of five have died from malnutrition in hospitals around SA, says the national health department. File photo.
Image: Esa Alexander

In the past three years 2,818 children under the age of five have died of malnutrition in hospitals in SA.

This was revealed to the National Assembly by the department of health after a question by the DA’s Bridget Masango.

Additional figures presented by the department, going back five years, underpinned the severity of the situation: “There were 3,886 under-five deaths associated with severe acute malnutrition nationally in the past five years as reported in the district health information system,” said spokesperson Foster Mohale.

“Malnourished children are more likely to die due to infection and infections worsen the severity of the malnutrition. Most deaths from acute malnutrition are linked to infections such as diarrhoea, pneumonia, tuberculosis and HIV/Aids.” 

The number of deaths includes children who died from severe acute malnutrition, which is a rapid condition where wasting, or dramatic weight loss, leads to death, and moderate acute malnutrition, where the sufferer lives with malnutrition for a long time and death could arise from secondary illnesses such as pneumonia.

According to the figures, the North West is the only province that showed a significant decrease in the number of child deaths due to severe malnutrition — from 154 in 2019 to 56 and 62 respectively in the next two years.

The Sunday Times reported on May 8 that 199 children under five had died of malnutrition in hospitals in January and February this year.

According to the report, families hit hard by the Covid-19 lockdown and poverty are battling to put food on the table, with KwaZulu-Natal bearing the brunt.

Experts said the situation was likely to get worse as more people sink into poverty with little sign of relief or economic upturn. With interest rates set to rise again and the war in Ukraine — a major grain exporter — likely to continue for some time, experts predict steeper prices and more hardship.

According to the parliamentary response, the following numbers were reported:

  • 2019/2020: moderate acute malnutrition (Mam) — 166; severe acute malnutrition (Sam) — 868; Total — 1,034;
  • 2020/2021: Mam — 207; Sam — 568; Total — 775; and
  • 2021/2022: Mam — 238; Sam — 771; Total — 1009

The worst affected provinces were KwaZulu-Natal followed by the Eastern Cape and Gauteng.

In a response to TimesLIVE, the health department reported there were 907 severe malnutrition cases in children under five in 2017 and 787 in 2018.

Graph shows the number of children under five who died from severe acute malnutrition.
Graph shows the number of children under five who died from severe acute malnutrition.
Image: Department of Health

Mervyn Abrahams, programme co-ordinator at the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group, said the annual increments in social grants do not close the inflation gap on food cost increases.

Nokuthula Dladla, project manager of Siyaphambili Qondile, a non-profit organisation, said there is no doubt children are starving.

“The child-support grant is not enough to feed them,” she said.

Teddy Bear Clinic director Dr Shaheda Omar said the deaths recorded were those seen in hospitals and did not reflect the actual number of children dying in rural areas. 

TimesLIVE

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