WEST AND CENTRAL AFRICA feature story for Niger

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1579/Holtz

A woman waits for her baby son to be weighed at a health centre in southern Maradi Region. Despite ongoing drought conditions and high food prices, timely nutrition screenings and treatment can save the poorest malnourished children.

The Niger’s Nutrition Crisis: View from a UNICEF nutrition expert

By Vanessa Curney

The figures tell an alarming tale, painting a scene as arid as the vast swathes of hot sand that sweep through the northernmost parts of the Niger. By 10 October 2010, 263,273 children had been treated for severe acute malnutrition at nutrition rehabilitation centres. Some of these children are in the Niger’s poorest and hardest-to-reach rural villages in some of the worst-hit regions of Maradi, Tahoua, Tillabery and Zinder.

“The good news,” said Eric-Alain Ategbo, UNICEF’s chief nutrition expert in the Niger, “is that [nutritional] screening is working. We’re identifying enough cases early enough to ensure adequate treatment. And by using World Health Organization standards combined with an outpatient treatment approach for severe cases without medical complications, we have been better placed to deal with these cases.”

But the sheer numbers of undernourished children have been precariously high. Some say that it is even worse than the 2005 crisis, when hospital staff, inundated with cases but lacking equipment and knowledge, watched helplessly as children died. In 2010, nutritional screening and early treatment are more effectively saving children’s lives, but diseases such as malaria and cholera have intensified the need for urgent and comprehensive care.

By mid-October, nearly 2.4 million malaria cases had been reported nationwide – compared to 1.3 million by the same date in 2009 – with a fresh onset and spike upward during the September rainy season. In localized outbreaks, cholera continues to threaten children. By mid-October, 1,164 cases had been reported and 71 deaths. Other challenges to alleviating the health emergency include flooding from the Niger River and potential security threats from Al-Qaida.

Precarious times such as these call for real hope balanced with realistic action. And UNICEF’s Eric-Alain Ategbo is hopeful. “Things are pretty bad but not catastrophic,” he said with quiet determination. “Systems are in place to bring everything under control. Screening continues to get children into the health centres before they deteriorate. UNICEF provides 95 per cent of the ready-to-use therapeutic food, and we are doing all we can to support the [interim] Government to provide these centres with good resources. In addition, we’re getting better training for service providers and quality care for these kids, helping the Government to expand hospitalization capacity and generally coordinating the nutritional response.”

Mr. Ategbo sees a number of tasks ahead: “We need to increase the resilience of the people. Providing sufficient and good health care is key, as is engaging the community in behaviour promoted through the ‘essential family practices’ that include washing hands after using the toilet, encouraging exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and complementary feeding for children aged between 6 and 23 months.”

The country’s long-term food security and nutritional stability demand a tremendous amount of work from all sections of the community, both national and international. That includes the Government, international organizations such as UNICEF, NGOs, and parents, community leaders and workers. Can one of the world’s poorest countries deliver that stability? The future lives of the Niger’s children depend on that answer being a resounding ‘yes’.