When Zelika, 2, was admitted to a hospital three weeks ago with severe acute malnutrition, her odds of survival were low. But her life was saved after intensive nutritional and medical care in a treatment centre in Ouallam. Report by Shushan Mebrahtu, OUALLAM/ NIAMEY, Niger
UNICEF West and Central Africa Regional Director David Gressly and World Food Programme Regional Director for West Africa Thomas Yanga visited Zelika during a recent trip to Niger to review humanitarian responses to the looming malnutrition crisis in the Sahel region.
“The malnutrition crisis is real, and if adequate treatment is not provided, it can quickly lead to death,” Mr. Gressly said. “We need to act immediately to save the lives of the one million children who are at high risk.”
Efforts to avert a major crisis
This year, more than one million children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in the Sahel region, following poor rain and harvest and rising food prices that have left communities vulnerable to the emerging food crisis.
Major humanitarian efforts are needed to treat nearly 394,000 children who may be affected by severe malnutrition. These include ensuring a sufficient supply of therapeutic food and drugs, provision of trained professionals as well as access to clean water and sanitation facilities in feeding centres.
UNICEF requires US$30 million in funding to continue its response in Niger. UNICEF and its partners have called on the international community to increase the flow of life-saving supplies and services to make sure that a large-scale tragedy affecting hundreds of thousands of children is averted.
Past successes and further challenges
“Niger has done a lot over the last several years to address the problems of malnutrition,” said Mr. Gressly. “We are here to witness these efforts and take the message to the other affected countries that can benefit from Niger’s experience.”
Niger has an effective network of nutrition treatment centres, the largest in all the affected countries. UNICEF, the Government of Niger and other partners agree that past investments in these programmes have paid off. The systems are working, providing early warning and treating child malnutrition, and they can help avert the looming catastrophe – if adequate funding is made available.
But there are further challenges. An estimated 24,000 refugees are seeking safety in Niger from the ongoing fighting in Northern Mali, requiring humanitarian relief of their own. UNICEF is working with its partners to provide drinking water and other life-saving supplies to the displaced communities in the northern Tillabery Region, an area already badly affected by the drought.
“Our living condition has improved since we arrived here. It is a relief to have drinking water close by,” said Aminata, 50, a Nigerien who had lived in Mali for more than 20 years before being forced by the conflict to return home.
After visiting the Mangaizé temporary settlement site in Tillabery – approximately 100 km from the Mali-Niger border – Mr. Gressly commended the immediate response but stressed the need to improve access to food, hygiene and sanitation facilities, education, health, child protection and other essential services for displaced children and families.
Addressing the underlying causes of malnutrition
The two Regional Directors agreed on the vital need to integrate relief efforts into longer-term development interventions.
To this end, UNICEF in Niger and its partners are supporting the programmes aimed at helping the Government of Niger scale up cost-effective and integrated interventions to address and prevent child malnutrition. One such programme was launched at a high-level nutrition event attended by Mr. Gressly and Mr. Yanga, senior government officials, donors, UN agencies and other partners.
“Whether it is the promotion of breast-feeding, improved sanitation and hygiene behaviours, or use of malaria nets – simple but effective interventions – or strengthening prevention measures that rely on community actions, we need to continue to work with our partners in addressing the underlying and structural causes of malnutrition in the region,” Mr. Gressly said.
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