Niger: Unprecedented numbers of children dying from malaria and malnutrition

Niger 2018 © Laurence Hoenig/MSF

NEW YORK/NIAMEY/GENEVA, SEPTEMBER 25, 2018—An average of ten children per day died last month in the hospital in Magaria in southern Niger, an alarming mortality rate mostly due to malnutrition and malaria in children under five, said the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) on Tuesday. MSF, in collaboration with Niger’s Ministry of Health (MOH) is currently treating 730 children who are admitted to the hospital, including 208 who are critically ill and crowded into the pediatric intensive care unit.

“We have never seen anything like this before, and we fear it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Dr. Dorian Job, MSF’s Niger program manager based in Geneva. “Each year, at about this time, we expect a peak in malaria infections, as well as an incidence of malnutrition above emergency thresholds, but we haven’t seen patients overwhelming the hospital in such numbers before.”

Given the number of deaths recorded in mortality surveys conducted during the malaria and malnutrition peaks in previous years, MSF teams believe they are only seeing a sixth of the children who are in need of care. Many of those diagnosed with malaria or malnutrition are also suffering from other diseases.

NIGER 2018 © MSF/Laurence Hoenig

“While our hospital is already terribly overwhelmed, it’s likely that hundreds of children are seriously ill in the community and not getting the care they need,” Job said. “The children we are seeing are arriving at the hospital extremely late. Sadly, many already have complications so serious that they cannot recover.”

Despite attempts to reduce the number of malaria infections associated with the seasonal peak—including the distribution of malaria prophylaxis to families with children aged between three months and five years—mortality rates remain alarmingly high.

NIGER 2018 MSF/Laurence Hoenig

MSF has sent 243 experienced medical staff from across Niger and around the world to ensure patients receive the best possible care inside the hospital and out in the community, where a team is running mobile clinics to care for children closer to home.

“MSF’s hospital in Magaria is the only health facility available in a region for 700,000 to one million people, around 20 percent of whom are under five years old,” Job said. “So while the malaria season is worse this year, it’s not surprising that we are overwhelmed. The health system in the area is chronically underfunded, lacking means, organization, training, and support. This prevents people from accessing care and, in turn, claims lives. We could double our capacity and still not meet the needs of the children aged under five in the community.”

MSF has been working with Niger’s Ministry of Health in the Zinder region of the country since 2005, including in Magaria where MSF runs a 435-bed pediatric unit to improve care for pediatric patients and prevent, detect, and treat childhood diseases. From January 1 to August 31, 11,100 children were admitted to this unit. More than 3,300 children under five were admitted to the unit in August alone. In addition to this facility, MSF also supports 11 health centers, 14 health posts, and six stabilization rooms for children under five in the Magaria area.