'Today, Nigeriens know that their children can recover from malnutrition'

Elyse Aichatou is a nurse. Having left midwifery school in 2005, she was recruited by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to help treat malnourished children after her home country, Niger, was hit by an extremely serious nutritional crisis. For 10 years, Elyse has continued her work at MSF’s nutritional centers in southern Niger. Here she talks about her experiences and the problem of malnutrition in the Zinder region from 2005 to today.

“I was born in Zinder, Niger’s second largest city. In 2005, with my midwifery degree in hand, I was recruited by MSF. So, at 21 years old, I became a day nurse at the intensive therapeutic feeding center (ITFC) that MSF had opened in Birni, in a district of Zinder.

It was in August, during the peak of the infant malnutrition season which we expect every year from June to September. MSF had set up camp in a school which was empty during the summer holidays. I was in intensive care; a lot of malnourished children would arrive in a critical state. Mothers cried over their dead children. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was very difficult psychologically. After that, I was transferred to Magaria where the situation was even worse! It was another very demanding experience. 

What is malnutrition? Before starting my work, I had heard people talk about it, but I didn't believe it. At the time, it used to be said that malnourished children had ‘gotten dirty’. It was a popular belief that children became malnourished after having slept on the mattress on which their mother had cheated on her husband.

We don't think that way anymore. There is still a lot of awareness-raising to do within the community, but thanks to the work accomplished by MSF over the last 10 years, the majority of people have come to understand that a malnourished child is a sick child and that they can recover if they receive the appropriate care. That is a huge change.

Before, losing a child to malnutrition was a part of life in the villages. Today, Nigeriens know that their children can recover from malnutrition. We still have a lot of malnourished children in our treatment centers during the peak season, but this reflects the fact that people are coming to look for quality care and that access to treatment has become easier for families, especially with the free services offered by MSF.

Since 2005, national protocols for managing malnutrition have also evolved with the generalized use of ready-to-use therapeutic foods at home. The quality of our work has improved: we have been trained; have developed new tools; and have dedicated ourselves to prevention to avoid having too many gravely ill children during the peak. Better prevention is better survival.

Over the years and during peak periods, I have toured the health facilities supported by MSF in the region, [for example] in Dungass, Magaria, and Bangaza. In 2013, I joined MSF’s emergency pool in Niger. It’s an experimental team of people that MSF can call in case of emergency in order to intervene faster when they need to.

For me, the most notable years were 2005 and 2015. Ten years ago, it was the state of the children that was shocking: there were some really serious cases. But this year, in Magaria, we have been able to manage a huge and sudden arrival of children. There were up to 750 children in the hospital's ITFC in October! We had several children per bed and the teams were overwhelmed. Even though malnutrition is a chronic crisis in Niger, we hadn’t seen this for years. The battle against malnutrition is far from over.”


See an interactive timeline of MSF's work treating malnutrition in Niger since 2005