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Maternal and child malnutrition: we must invest in health workers

Baby Nirob in Bosikali village Bangladesh
Nirob, 5 months, at his home in Bosikali village, Bangladesh
(Guilhem Alandry/Save the Children)

In Bangladesh, we met five-month-old Nirob, who was battling against a terrible combination of malnutrition and disease. He’d been losing weight since he was born and wouldn’t feed regularly.

Nirob’s mother Shipra didn’t know what was wrong and wished she could take him to a doctor. But she told us that no health workers visit their rural village and they can’t afford to make the 50km journey to the nearest clinic.

“Where can I go for help?” she asked. “I just want Nirob to be safe and well. Only then can I think about his future.”

The links between health and nutrition

Malnutrition is an underlying cause of almost half of child deaths worldwide. However, there is often little discussion about the role that health workers – doctors, nurses, midwives and community-based healthcare providers – play in preventing and treating it.

Health workers are vital for promoting good maternal and child nutrition, particularly during the crucial 1,000 day window between conception and a child’s second birthday. For example, community health workers in India proactively go out into the community to identify pregnant women and children at risk of malnutrition.

A severe shortage of health workers

However, the children at greatest risk are also the least likely to see a health worker. Our new policy brief shows that of the 30 countries with the highest rates of stunting, 29 are classified as having a severe health worker shortage. In Afghanistan, where almost three out of five children are stunted, there are just seven doctors, nurses and midwives to serve every 10,000 people.

The global shortage of skilled health workers means that children in the world’s poorest countries don’t get the care that would stop them dying from causes related to malnutrition. It also means that pregnant women don’t receive counselling about how to ensure optimum nutrition for themselves and their baby.

We need more health workers who are trained and supported to prevent and treat malnutrition in the places of greatest need.

As part of broader efforts to end preventable maternal, newborn and child deaths and achieve Universal Health Coverage, Save the Children is calling on governments, with the support of development partners such as the UK government, to take a number of actions, including:

  • Ensure that global nutrition initiatives recognise the role that health workers play in improving maternal and child nutrition
  • Increase investment in the recruitment and training of new health workers
  • Develop and implement plans for continued training and professional development for health workers, including better support and supervision, fair pay and incentives to encourage them to work in under-served areas
  • Ensure that nutrition is a core part of training curricula for all levels of health workers.

In November, the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health takes place in Brazil. We’re calling on world leaders to use this opportunity to ensure that every mother and child has access to a health worker with the skills and support needed to improve nutrition and save lives.

Read our full briefing Nursing for Nutrition to find out more.

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