From Severely Malnourished in South Sudan to Full Recovery: Maria's Story


Since 2014, UNICEF Kid Power Bands have been converting kids’ steps into lifesaving nutrition to solve a major global problem. 

Every day, 16 million children worldwide struggle to survive severe acute malnutrition (SAM). Roughly 1 million lose that fight every year. Two-year-old Maria John, above, was nearly one of them. 

Maria lives in South Sudan, where in February 2017, famine was declared. An economic crisis, which sparked an inflation rate of 800 percent, plunged millions of people deeper into poverty and food insecurity, leaving children like Maria vulnerable.

Having treated more than 600,000 severely malnourished children since 2013, UNICEF quickly mobilized to deliver lifesaving nutrition to children affected by the crisis. 

We're proud to say that the UNICEF Kid Power Team did its part, too. 

Thanks to their activity and the funding from Disney and other UNICEF Kid Power supporters it unlocked, 1.8 million packets of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) were delivered to children in South Sudan last March. That shipment allowed 12,000 children like Maria who live in the hardest hit areas to receive treatment.


Maria was severely malnourished with medical complications when she was admitted to Al Sabbah, a UNICEF supported inpatient stabilization center in Juba, South Sudan, in October 2017. She was suffering from bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. She weighed just over 13 pounds.


“There is nothing for us to eat at home,” said Gisma Augustino, Maria’s mother, who struggled to provide her family even the most basic meals of beans and rice. Extremely poor diets, very limited access to health services, disease outbreaks and poor sanitation have increased acute malnutrition across the country.

“I don’t make enough money to buy the right foods,” explains her grandmother, Victoria.


Maria, like some 280,000 other South Sudanese children paid the price. When her grandmother brought her to the hospital, Maria, was too weak to walk, and her family feared the worst. 

“I was so worried and I didn’t think she would become healthy without help,” said  her mother, Gisma.


At the hospital Maria was given a therapeutic milk formula used to treat the most severely ill children. The therapeutic milk is rich in nutrients, easy to digest and quickly provides malnourished children with energy.


Once she was strong enough, Maria was then referred to a primary health care center close to her home, where she was measured and weighed. At the center, which treats 200–300 patients per week, she was deemed strong enough to move on to the next phase of her treatment. She and her grandmother went home with a week's supply of RUTF.


On a diet of RUTF, Maria continued to improve until she hit a setback, not uncommon with children who are weakened by severe acute malnutrition. A severely malnourished child is nine times more likely to die than a healthy child. And when Maria developed a fever with a severe cold and cough, her family feared for her recovery.

Suspecting malaria, the health workers tested Maria. But when the results came back negative, she was treated with antibiotics. Her condition soon improved and she began walking and playing again. 


Just over a month after diagnosis, Maria’s blank stare gave way to an infectious smile, and her family and friends, who'd been steeling themselves to say goodbye, let out a collective sigh of relief. 

“I can’t believe it,” says her grandmother. “I saw Maria looking so weak we weren’t sure she would come home again.”

As for the other children of South Sudan, while full-scale famine has so far been averted, the situation is still perilous. UNICEF estimates that more than a million children are likely to be malnourished in 2018. 

All photos: © UNICEF/Gonzalez Farran