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Thousands of Children Continue to Suffer From Severe Malnutrition in Niger
September 27, 2005
Despite increasing media coverage over the past months and the announced mobilization of international aid, the crisis is far from over in Niger. In the Zinder region, the number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition admitted in Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) therapeutic feeding centers is not decreasing and free food distributions are far from addressing the needs of the most destitute families.
It's market day in Magaria, a town bordering Nigeria in the Zinder region. As every week, thousands gather, and in these first weeks of September, the town is busy with trucks loaded with food. Stands are lined up tightly, piled with millet, sorghum, rice, oil, sugar, onions, beans, and pumpkins. A little further down, merchants grill pieces of goat and mutton. The market is buzzing with life: people talking, bargaining everywhere.
A staggering contrast
There is nothing but a wall between the market and the local health center, where a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team conducts weekly screening for severely malnourished children. Hundreds of women line up in front of the center. As soon as a member of the MSF team walks by, they rush toward them holding their emaciated children, skin stretched on bones, hoping that their child will be the first to see a doctor, hoping that they will be saved. One cannot escape from an uneasy feeling of vertigo: how can these children be in such dire conditions while barely 30 feet away the market is bustling with activity?
In the health center, doctors from the MSF team are in shock. The first child they saw this morning arrived too late; they could not resuscitate him. Diseases–diarrhea, respiratory infections, and malaria–compound children's severe malnutrition by weakening them further. When a child is in such a state, he must receive medical care as soon as possible. This is why the MSF team screens the crowd looking for the most urgent cases. And every hour, MSF ambulances transfer the most severe cases to the intensive care unit in Zinder.
Assistance remains insufficient
Other members of the team visit the 300 children already registered in the program on a weekly basis. Baraka is one of the mothers waiting with her child for this visit. She first heard about MSF on her way to the market. Last week, she took Abou, her nine-month-old severely malnourished child, to the health center. She is happy because he already started regaining weight. After the consultation, Baraka received one week's worth of Plumpy'nut–a relatively new ready-to-eat therapeutic food–for Abou, and a food ration for the entire family for one week. To return to her house, she still has to walk for three hours.
Millet fields surround her village, yet Abou was not the only child to suffer from severe malnutrition. Even if the harvest now looks promising, Baraka worries that she will not benefit from it. To feed her family during the period between when their food stocks ran out and the next harvest, she had to borrow money from a local millet trader in Zinder. The only food aid she received was outrageously dismal: two bags of rice for the entire village, equivalent to half a cup of rice per person. Moreover, loans were not enough for Baraka to afford care for her four children suffering from malaria. In Niger, even the poorest people have to pay for medical care.
No access to medical care or food, mounting debts, and meager food aid: such is the daily life of too many families from the Maradi and Zinder regions of Niger. Despite the arrival of international aid in July, free food distributions have yet to reach many of the families and children that continue to face starvation.