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Niger: Alarming Increase in Malnutrition
April 7, 2005
In Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) program in Maradi in southern Niger, the number of children arriving with severe malnutrition continues to climb. In 2004, MSF treated nearly 10,000 severely malnourished children, and since the beginning of this year the situation has deteriorated further. In the villages MSF has recently visited, 1 out of every 5 children is at risk of malnutrition.
Millet reserves empty and land for sale
Last year's harvests were either scorched by the sun or ravaged by locusts. In the most affected areas of Tahoua and Maradi, more than 90 percent of the harvest was destroyed. The millet stores are therefore empty and the sorghum reserves are non-existent.As a result, farmers are having to purchase their own food and prices have skyrocketed. Those who do not have the means to buy in the markets are resorting to substitute products, such as anza, a small wild plant that bears a very bitter fruit which is only used during food shortages.
For animal breeders the situation is also extremely critical: the only pastures left are tiny islands of yellowing straw surrounded by sand. The distances between these pastures are so vast that many animals do not have the energy to cross them. There is a significant lack of fodder, milk production has drastically dropped, and breeders have been forced to start selling their animals (young females included) in order to buy food. They are having to dip into their capital in order to survive even though livestock prices are currently very low in comparison to the cost of grain. Some farmers have had to start selling their land, a sign of extreme vulnerability.
One out of five children is at risk of malnutrition
"In the villages we've visited, one out of five children is at risk of malnutrition," reports Arnaud, an MSF logistician and food security specialist, upon returning from an evaluation mission. "There won't be any rain before May, and the pastures won't start producing until June. The first harvests won't be ready until September."
Without immediate intervention, children at risk are going to continue losing weight and risk entering the "red zone": severe malnutrition.* MSF is already seeing an increase in the number of cases of severe malnutrition: since mid-February the number of weekly child admissions has gone from 170 to nearly 250. Three months before the usual critical period our therapeutic feeding center in Maradi has already reached its maximum capacity, even though outpatient treatment has significantly reduced the number of patients that need hospitalization.
Action is needed, and quickly
Our exploratory missions have confirmed that the situation is indeed very alarming. The early warning system in Niger, which monitors food status on the national level, has already published very worrisome data. Time is of the essence. An additional MSF team will be departing within days to open two new severe malnutrition treatment centers. However, in order to ensure that the lack of harvest does not end up costing the lives of thousands of children, other aid organizations must get involved immediately.
*A person is considered to suffer from moderate malnutrition when their weight/height ratio falls between 70% and 80% of the median. Severe malnutrition is indicated by a weight/height ratio below 70%. Global malnutrition encompasses moderate and severe cases.