Slum conditions in Bangladesh pose health hazards, and malnutrition is a sign of other illnesses

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It is still early in the morning, but the narrow alleyways of Kamrangirchar, Bangladesh, are already bustling with activity. The screeching sound of wood being sawed, the clunk of metal being hammered into shape, and the cacophony of small factories producing everything from salt to bricks and balloons give the impression that everyone here is working very hard. Yet, judging by the worn-out sandals and the weary faces, very few people earn much money.

Kamrangirchar is one of Dhaka’s, the capital of Bangladesh, many slum areas – a product of the mass urban migration that has made this capital the world’s most rapidly expanding city. Public services and infrastructure have struggled to keep pace, and access to affordable healthcare is extremely limited.

Once used as a dumping ground for the city’s rubbish, the Kamrangirchar peninsula has only become heavily populated in the last few decades. Covering just three square kilometres, the area is now home to 400,000 people.

Here, on the banks of one of the most polluted rivers in the world, MSF runs a primary healthcare centre that provides care to children under five and pregnant and lactating women.

Nearby, MSF runs a therapeutic feeding centre, which has admitted 220 severely malnourished children since it opened five months ago. Through a largely home-based programme, these children are being fed with Plumpy’Nut – a thick nutrient-rich peanut paste which helps children reach a normal body weight.

Every morning, a long line of women in brightly coloured saris queue up with their young children outside MSF’s facilities. A quick glance shows the children are nearly all thin and frail, and some have rashes on their skin. Many also have a large brown dot painted on their foreheads – a sign of good luck and protection against evil spirits. A few metres away, a group of older children splash happily in the grey river water, which is tainted by toxic waste from the factories upstream.

“A lot of the patients are suffering from diarrhoea and skin diseases,” says Sophie de Montpelier, MSF’s field coordinator. “This is a direct result of the unhygienic living conditions in this heavily polluted area. Exposure to the contaminated river water – which is nothing less than raw sewage – is potentially hazardous. Families as large as ten often live together in one small room and share latrines with neighbours, which increases the spread of communicable diseases.”

Government figures show that some 40 percent of Bangladeshis live below the poverty line, most surviving on a meagre diet of rice and vegetables.

“Even simple changes in cooking habits and hygienic practices can make a difference to people’s health,” says Sophie. “If people buy vegetables, they usually leave them in lots of water, then boil and fry them. People need to understand that this actually takes away a lot of vital nutrients. And when they boil rice, they could keep the water, rather than throwing it away.”

To help prevent children becoming malnourished, MSF staff give cooking classes in people’s homes to teach mothers about the importance of food hygiene and nutrition. During these sessions, women learn new ways of preparing khichuri – a local dish containing rice, lentils and vegetables – so that nutrients are not lost in the cooking process.

“Even though malnutrition is a major health problem, it is not considered an illness, as such, but a symptom of other diseases,” says Sophie. “The level of health awareness in this community is very low, and people have a great deal of superstitious beliefs, such as believing that children may be touched by bad spirits through consuming breast milk or eating fish. Some mothers believe that a baby with diarrhoea should not be given extra water because the body already contains too much liquid. That’s why MSF is investing a lot in health promotion activities here.”

MSF plans to open more health facilities in the area in the near future, so that it can use its experience to help more mothers and children live healthy lives in Kamrangirchar.