Burkina Faso: Malnutrition surges among children trapped by conflict

Escalating conflict in Burkina Faso has caused a dire humanitarian situation for communities caught in the crossfire, especially for children who face rising malnutrition rates.

Mothers and their children in a women's club session in an IDP camp in Kongoussi, Burkina Faso

Mothers and children at an IDP camp in Kongoussi, another area in Burkina Faso affected by conflict. | Burkina Faso 2023 © Nisma Leboul/MSF

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, November 28, 2023—Children in Tougan, a town surrounded by an armed group in northwestern Burkina Faso, are suffering from malnutrition at catastrophic levels, according to a recent assessment by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), highlighting the humanitarian consequences of a worsening conflict in the country.

From October 5 to 12, MSF teams assessed areas of Tougan where many displaced people are sheltering and found that 9.6 percent of children under five years old are suffering from severe acute malnutrition while another 10.1 percent suffer from moderate acute malnutrition, far exceeding the threshold for a humanitarian emergency. 

MSF had previously suspended activities in Tougan following the killing of two staff members in February.  

"Given that we had suspended activities in the area, and that people in Tougan have suffered months of deprivation and violence, we were expecting to find a very serious humanitarian situation," said Moctar Abass, deputy head operations in Burkina Faso. "The evidence of the deterioration in children's nutritional status confirmed our fears." 

The findings of this assessment point to a dire humanitarian situation that many communities face as they are caught up in worsening conflicts between armed groups and Burkina Faso's security forces. This year, conflict has expanded into areas that were previously more stable, including the Boucle du Mouhoun region where Tougan is located.  

More than 2 million people are now displaced by conflict in Burkina Faso. Armed groups across the country have been using brutal methods to surround and cut off dozens of towns. The residents of neighboring villages are ordered to leave, attacked, and sometimes even massacred. Mines and other explosive devices are laid and no one is allowed in or out of the town targeted. Vehicles are checked and anyone daring to defy their orders is attacked. Very quickly, basic necessities run out and prices spike, leaving people heavily reliant on deliveries by military convoys and humanitarian aid to obtain food. 

"People in Tougan tell us that they're unable to cultivate their fields outside the town," Abass said. "They are almost entirely reliant on military convoys for food. Sadly, their situation is not unique. We have every reason to believe that other towns and villages that are also surrounded may be enduring a similar degree of nutritional crisis." 

MSF was able to assess malnutrition in Tougan, due in part to newly available flights set up by the United Nations Humanitarian Air Service. 

Working in partnership with Burkina Faso's health authorities, MSF is now preparing to ramp up treatment for malnourished children in Tougan. This will include supporting community health workers and activities in health centers, as well as increasing the capacities of medical facilities to treat the sickest children. MSF is also providing medications and stocks of ready-to-use therapeutic foods to assist Ministry of Health personnel who remain in the area.