Four-year-old Bassira was motionless in her hospital bed while a tube running through her nose delivered nutrient-rich therapeutic milk to her body – treatment for severe acute malnutrition. Repory by Stephen Pattison and Chris Tidey. MARADI, Niger, 13 February 2012
Her mother brought her to this therapeutic feeding centre outside Maradi after Bassira, who was already malnourished, contracted malaria and slipped into a coma. That was 12 days ago.
Bassira has since come out of the coma, and though she remains too weak to eat, she is gradually gaining back her strength. The doctor and healthcare workers from FORSANI, a local NGO, expect her to make a full recovery.
Sadly, Bassira’s experience may be a harbinger of things to come. Following drought, poor harvests and rising food prices across broad swaths of West and Central Africa’s Sahel region, a nutrition crisis appears imminent. Region-wide emergency responses will be required to treat the more than 1 million children expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2012.
Worst for children
In Niger, a country that faced similar crises in 2005 and 2010, harvests fell 14 per cent short of meeting the country’s seasonal needs.
Niger experiences chronically high rates of malnutrition under even normal circumstances. But now, at least 5.4 million people are currently estimated to be food insecure, representing nearly 35 per cent of the country’s entire population.
This is particularly worrisome for children – especially those under 5 years old – who are most vulnerable to the devastating health complications linked to malnutrition, including heightened risk of opportunistic diseases such as diarrhoea and skin and respiratory infections. UNICEF and its partners now estimate that nearly 331,000 children under age 5 in Niger will need to be treated for severe acute malnutrition over the course of the year.
Increased demand for basic staples has sent food prices soaring; the price for one kg of millet has risen 28 per cent. According to traders in the Maradi market, these prices are already as high as they were in June 2010 – the peak of the food crisis that year. In a country where 66 per cent of people live below the poverty line of $1.25 per day, families that cannot grow enough food to meet their needs are struggling to afford food to make up for the shortfall.
These are desperate times for villages like Wama in Niger’s Tillabery region, where many families are now eating doula and anza, local plants, just to survive.
Thirty-year-old single mother of three, Balkissa Heloura explained, “This is the first time in my life we have ever had to eat doula so early in the year, and my children keep asking me for something, anything else… but there is nothing. I have never seen such a serious situation, not in 2005 and not in 2010.”
UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Sani Sayadi agreed. “When people turn to doula or anza, it is a sign of desperation and a very bad indicator for the overall food security situation.”
Following the last crisis in 2010, the Government of Niger, with support from UNICEF and humanitarian partners, worked to strengthen the capacity of the country’s healthcare system. Niger is now better prepared to deal with the challenges at hand, including the significant rise in malnutrition cases. Doctors, nurses, the Government and humanitarian partners on the ground are confident Niger can keep disaster at bay – provided critical funding and supplies are made available.
Averting a disaster
UNICEF and the World Food Programme (WFP) are working together to support the management of child malnutrition. UNICEF is additionally working to prevent malnutrition through a blanket feeding programme targeting children and lactating women in the worst-affected areas.
UNICEF is also increasing access to clean water and sanitation to prevent the spread of opportunistic diseases, assisting migrant women and children, and supporting a community-based programme to improve basic hygiene, health and nutrition practices for mothers and their children.
UNICEF requires US$30 million in funding to continue its response to the situation in Niger. UNICEF and its partners are calling on the international community to increase the flow of life-sustaining supplies and services to make sure that this threat to the lives of hundreds of thousands of children is averted.
It is not too late, but we must act now.