Expecting nearly 400,000 cases, partners work to treat severe acute malnutrition in Niger
Magaria, Niger, 28 May 2010 – Souréba, 3, is as light as a bird. Resting on her mother’s knee, the little girl seems indifferent to the noises and movements around her. When her mother, Habsatou, tries to give her some therapeutic food on her finger, the child turns away from the brown milky mixture. She is emaciated and has lost her appetite.
Souréba became sick with a diarrhoeal disease a month ago. Severe acute malnutrition has damaged her alimentary canal, making eating painful and causing oedemas, or patches of swelling, to form on the top of her hands and feet.
During a nutritional assessment in her village, Souréba’s upper arm was measured and found to have a circumference of less than 9 cm, or about the size of a bottleneck – a sign of severe acute malnutrition. Habsatou immediately brought her daughter to a health centre in Magaria, southern Niger. There, Souréba will receive therapeutic feeding under close surveillance for at least a week. With good medical care, she has a chance to recover.
Along with her husband, Habsatou grows millet and raises chickens on a small parcel of land. Recently, however, they have been hit hard by a severe food shortage across Africa’s semi-arid Sahel region. While Habasatou supplements their income by selling salt and spices at a local market, the large family has been forced to live on just $30 a month. So this year, like many men in the region, Souréba’s father had to leave home to find work elsewhere.
Southern Niger is at the epicentre of this year’s food crisis. After several years of poor rainfall, crops have severely diminished. In the fall of 2009, every resident of Magaria already knew that the ‘lean season’ – the period between May and August when food stocks run out – would be even tougher and longer in 2010.
A curable condition
Despite the staggering numbers and the severity of the food crisis, malnutrition remains a curable condition. Even children as sick as Souréba can be saved.
After a similar crisis struck the region in 2005, Niger became one of the first countries to implement new strategies allowing for the mass treatment of malnutrition through outpatient programmes. Today, about 400 health centres supported by UNICEF and its partners provide nutritional care. UNICEF is finalizing plans to provide 285,000 boxes of therapeutic food for malnourished children in the country. In April, the UN system also launched a massive appeal known as the Emergency Humanitarian Action Plan for Niger, which calls for $190 million for nutritional aid and other assistance.
At the far end of the therapeutic feeding centre where Souréba is being treated, a group of children are jumping and playing. Once suffering from malnutrition, they are now cured and will soon return home. Habsatou watches as a nurse covers her daughter’s body with a blue cream that will soften her skin. With treatment, Souréba, too, may soon be heading home.
By Anne Fouchard