NIAMEY, Niger, 17 May 2012 – In the nutrition ward of Niamey’s regional hospital, all the beds are full of children showing the familiar signs of severe acute malnutrition: severe wasting, skins stretched tight over bones. The room is silent except for the noise of a small fan and the occasional cry of a child. Report by Shushan Mebrahtu
The patients are accompanied by their anxious mothers, who travelled hours, even days, to the hospital to get treatment for their children. Many could not afford transportation and had to borrow money from their in-laws. Others had to convince their husbands or in-laws to give them permission to bring their children to the centre.
These are the brave mothers in Niger who are fighting to give a better future to their children.
“My wish is to see my son grow healthy. I want him to go to school and to have better opportunities in life, which neither his father nor I had,” said Reyhanna Ibrahim, who travelled five hours by donkey and car to bring her 18-month-old son Mohammed to the hospital in Niamey. “I was worried to see him so sick. I thought I would lose him.”
As the dry season progresses, Niger and the other countries affected by the food and nutrition crisis in the Sahel are seeing an increase in the number of children arriving in nutrition treatment centres.
“This year, the number of children admitted is higher than last year,” said Amina Manou, chief of the nutrition rehabilitation ward. Since April, the number of children treated for severe acute malnutrition nationwide has been higher than in the same period in 2011 and 2010.
Over 6 million people do not have enough food to eat and 394,000 under-5 children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition, according to a recent emergency appeal report released by humanitarian actors in Niger. So far, more than 93,300 children with severe acute malnutrition have been treated.
“Just before we came to the hospital, my husband left to Togo to find work. The rains failed and there is nothing to harvest. He had to leave the village to find work elsewhere. We have little food and we share what we have with my in-laws. We have to eat in small quantities to ensure that it sustains us until the next harvest,” explained Ms. Ibrahim.
Struggling to get by
Aichatou shares similar concerns. When her 3-year-old daughter, Nafissa, stopped eating and developed a fever, she could think only of bringing her to the outpatient treatment centre in Niamey. As her husband had left the village to find work, she had to ask her in-laws for money and permission. Aichatou borrowed 1000 CFA francs (around US$2) and travelled for a day to get there.
Being a mother is not easy for Aichatou. It is difficult for her and her children to access health care because they are too poor to afford transportation to a health centre. Every morning, she walks two hours to fetch water – often a labour’s task –¬ from the closest well in her village. Her husband farms, but last year the rains failed and there is nothing to harvest. “We have little food left,” Aichatou explained. “Every day I worry how I will feed my children. So far, we have survived eating groundnuts.”
Back in the hospital, Nafissa has been receiving treatment for 12 days. She has gained 1.2 kilograms, and even started playing. Though Aichatou is happy to see Nafissa recover, she worries about her other children back home. She is particularly concerned about her eldest daughter, who is suddenly in charge of the family. She has been skipping classes to take care of her siblings. “I want her to continue her studies and to have a future,” Aichatou said.
Mothers’ heroic efforts highlight needs
On 9 May, the nurse brought Aichatou good news: Nafissa was being discharged. She will need to follow an outpatient treatment regime of ready-to-use therapeutic food until she reaches her target weight of 8 kg.
“I cannot wait until I go back home and see how my other children are doing,” Aichatou said with a big smile.
Mothers like Ms. Ibrahim and Aichatou are doing whatever they can to save their children and secure a better future for their families. Their heroic efforts call on the international community to intensify efforts and mobilize all means necessary to protect children from the malnutrition crisis.
It is not too late, but we must act now. UNICEF requires US$40 million to continue its life-saving operation in Niger.