MAJURO, Marshall Islands, Jan 16, 2019 - Dr. Mary Jane Gancio, a pediatrician at Marshall Islands’ largest hospital in the capital, Majuro, is meeting her newest patient: a two-week-old who has been brought in for her first check-up. With the child on a small examining table, Mary Jane checks the height and weight of the newborn; indicators that are of great importance in Marshall Islands, a country that faces the immense challenge of childhood stunting.
Dr. Gancio works long hours and says she sometimes finds the sheer number of patients overwhelming.
“These are children that need help, so even though I’m alone and feel tired and stressed out, you still have to come in and do something and see these children,” Dr. Gancio said.
In a community just outside Majuro, Joanna, a 20-year old single mother, is receiving a visit from Jonita Alik, a member of Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI), a local organization that works in Marshallese communities to identify vulnerable mothers and ensure they get advice on the right stimulation and nutrition to help their babies thrive – a critical early intervention to address stunting in the small atoll nation.
Even with the efforts of WUTMI and Marshall Islands’ health services, the country still faces serious hurdles in addressing stunting. Inadequate access to effective maternal and child health services; a lack of early learning opportunities; and critically, a limited availability of affordable nutritious diets, especially for children in vulnerable families, are all significant problems.
Study shows over a third of children in Marshall Islands are stunted
The scope of these challenges were detailed in a 2017 joint study from the Marshall Islands government and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which showed that 35% or over a third of Marshallese children under 5 surveyed were stunted from poor nutrition. Even by the Pacific Island region’s standards – in which most countries face significant issues of poor nutrition with high prices of imported goods – these numbers are alarmingly high.
Stunting and malnutrition can irreversibly damage development and learning. The resulting cognitive and linguistic delays accumulate early and continue, impairing earning and prosperity over a lifetime.
Dr. Mary Jane Gancio, a pediatrician at Marshall Islands’ largest hospital in the capital, Majuro, leads a breastfeeding workshop for new mothers at Majuro Hospital. (World Bank/Patrick Rose)