By Jennifer Aldridge
ACCRA, Ghana -- The U.S. and Ghana are teaming up to ease hunger in the West Africa nation.
The project, a joint effort by U.S. Africa Command, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Embassy and the Ghanaian Ministry of Health, is designed to improve the health and prosperity of children in the Volta region. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District awarded a Multiple Award Task Order Contract on Sept. 12 to construction contractor, CNaf-SET, to build a $489,700 nutritional rehabilitation center in Nkwanta, Ghana.
Despite the current need, there is no specific center for malnourished children in the area, said Linda Smittle, a Peace Corps Ghana volunteer.
"Right now, there is about 16 percent malnutrition with 3 percent being severely malnourished in the district," Smittle said.
Worldwide, malnutrition is responsible for nearly half the deaths of children under 5, according to the 2013 Lancet Series on Maternal and Child Nutrition. In Ghana, there are two causes of malnutrition -- the first is simply not enough calories consumed for calories expended.
"Those kids get really thin and their bones look frail," Smittle said.
The other trigger is lack of protein. Protein is necessary for key body functions, including muscle development and maintenance. Children lacking protein may appear to have swollen or bloated stomachs.
"Those are the kids with the big bellies," Smittle said.
The Ghanaian government, with U.S. assistance, is investing in proven interventions to reduce malnutrition in the country -- including the construction of the Nkwanta Nutritional Rehab Center. Upon completion, the center will be equipped with seven bedrooms -- each sized for five single beds, a training room, nurses' station, cooking and bathroom facilities, and a courtyard. The project is an addition to the existing district hospital complex and will complement existing buildings, architectural character and finishes.
The center's layout promotes interaction between parents --mainly mothers -- and staff and among parents, Smittle said.
"They will have a place to go -- a special place, with a family-like setting, where everyone can feel at home and learn to take care of their children," she said. "The center will rehabilitate the children so they get stronger and healthier. It will also teach the mothers to keep them strong and healthy."
The goal of this facility, according to Kornell Rancy, USACE Europe District's AFRICOM program manager, is to guarantee basic quality of life for children in the Volta region.
"By ensuring parents understand how to glean the most nutrition out of their food supplies and by alleviating malnutrition in identified cases, this center will ensure that the child population can thrive, attend school and become productive community members," he said.
The new center will fill a huge need, treating up to 300 patients per year, according to hospital officials. Malnourished children will stay a week or two to gain strength and reach sustainable nutrition levels so they can go about a healthy life, Smittle said.
"The old facility, a pediatric ward in the hospital, is designed to treat sick children rather than provide long-term nourishment and care," she said. "Right now, kids don't come. Once people know there is a place to go and they see it as a life-giving place, they will use it."
The center will serve the community at large. The concept is to treat malnourished children, but also and perhaps more importantly, educate the families involved about simple practices to boost health. Eventually, once enough patients and families receive care at the center, prevention measures will spread throughout the three-district community, Smittle said.
"We really want them to learn to take better care of not only the child who is the target, but all of the children in their family," she said. "They will learn from each other, not only experts, and word will spread that, 'Oh, I fed my baby this' or, 'If I wash my hands every time before feeding, my baby doesn't get sick.'"
The new center is expected to be complete in fall 2014 and will open its doors shortly thereafter.
CNaf-SET, will provide all labor, equipment, materials and other services to deliver the project. With plenty of experience building throughout Africa -- seven completed schools in Benin and one in Togo -- the company looks forward to executing this health services project, said Nuri Gultepe, a CNaf-SET general manager.
"We experience lots of happiness and pride since education and health are very crucial to the life of human beings," he said. "Developed societies have solved health and education matters. In other words, it is not possible for Africa to develop without improving health care and education."
As construction progresses from initial design to final handover, CNaf-SET will work closely with USACE to manage project execution, Gultepe said.
"USACE plays a very important role in monitoring and inspecting quality at every phase, resulting in better construction, in a timely manner and at the desired budget," he said.
The physical construction under way in Nkwanta is the foundation for something greater. Combating malnutrition is a challenging task, especially in Africa, but the nutritional center will provide the framework for a stronger, healthier Ghanaian youth population, Smittle said.
"Think of a child who may be dying: If they don't receive services, he or she may pass away," she said. "Here, they will not only get immediate nutrition, but the knowledge to know how to keep going in the right direction. That's exciting, that's changing lives."