A ‘children’s crisis’ unfolds in West and Central Africa’s Sahel region 

A ‘children’s crisis’ unfolds in West and Central Africa’s Sahel region

Even as the battle against hunger continues in the drought-hit Horn of Africa, another crisis has begun to unfold in eight countries across West Africa. Report by Priyanka Pruthi

VIDEO: December 2011 – UNICEF correspondent Priyanka Pruthi reports on the growing crisis in Africa’s Sahel region, where more than a million children are at risk of becoming severely malnourished.

More than a million children in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa are at risk of becoming severely malnourished. Inadequate rain, poor harvests and rising food prices have left hundreds of thousands of children vulnerable and weak.

Preventing an emergency

Along with partners on the ground, UNICEF has begun distributing life-sustaining supplies, but the region is vast and humanitarian workers are struggling to reach the hardest hit before it is too late. UNICEF estimates more than 1,025,000 children will need life-saving treatment for severe and acute malnutrition in 2012.

“Specially developed ready-to-use therapeutic foods are the best way to treat severe acute malnutrition among children under five so they have a chance to survive and recover,” said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.  “The biggest challenge we face now is getting sufficient amounts of these critical foods to children as the need increases in the coming months – and the window is closing.”

Niger will be among the countries hardest hit, with roughly 330,600 children under-five at risk of severe and acute malnutrition. The government has already issued an alert stating more than half of the country’s villages are vulnerable to food insecurity. Other countries and regions where children are expected to require treatment are Burkina Faso, northern Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, northern Nigeria and northern Senegal.

Children eat cooked leaves in Guidan Bawa Village, Niger
Children eat cooked leaves in Guidan Bawa Village, Niger. In 2010, drought forced many households to forage for wild fruit and leaves. UNICEF Image © UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1592/Holtz

“In many of these countries, the level of existing chronic malnutrition – children who miss a little bit of food every day, children who are too frequently ill and as a result become chronically undernourished, which impacts their health, their learning capability, their school performance and which will impact ultimately the way they can live and perform as adults – that situation is far too common in the Sahel zone countries,” explains UNICEF Chief of Nutrition Werner Schultink.

Simple measures, lasting impact

Averting a tragedy in West Africa will require an intensive response. Interventions over the course of the coming year must involve not only nutrition and health programmes but also the provision of clean water, sanitation facilities at feeding centres, as well as emergency education for children displaced with their families

“We need to undertake actions to bring the level of chronic undernutrition down, and that can be done by relatively simple things: If mothers would breastfeed more frequently, if the hygiene situation would improve, if hand-washing would improve, if effective diarrhoea treatment would improve, if … simple packages of vitamins and minerals would be provided at low-cost, you would already achieve a great reduction in this chronic undernutrition,” said Mr. Schultink.

Appealing on behalf of the children in the Sahel region, one of the poorest regions in the world where people have been plagued by malnutrition for decades, Mr. Lake called on the global community to step forward.

“The children at risk today in the Sahel are not mere statistics by which we may measure the magnitude of a potential humanitarian disaster,” he said. “They are individual girls and boys, and each has the right to survive, to thrive and to contribute to their societies. We must not fail them.”

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