Making inroads in Niger’s ongoing nutrition emergency

© UNICEF Niger/2007/Barger

Sa’adé Mouctar collects supplies for her infant son at a supplementary feeding centre run by UNICEF partner Action Against Hunger-Spain, in Maradi Region, Niger. Despite improvements, 300,000 Niger children suffer from acute malnutrition.

Sa’adé Mouctar ties nine-month-old Alhassane to her back and treks more than an hour to the town of Mayahi in Niger’s south-central Maradi Region. She has made this trip every two weeks for the past month and a half so that Alhassane can be treated for malnutrition. He had become malnourished after a bout with diarrhoea, vomiting and fever. Now he is an outpatient at the supplementary feeding centre operated by UNICEF’s partner Action Against Hunger-Spain.

UNICEF supports Action Against Hunger-Spain and 20 other non-governmental organizations operating nearly 1,000 feeding centres in corroboration with Niger’s Health Department. Since the 2005 nutrition crisis, they have made significant strides in reducing the rate of malnutrition among under-five children. Between October 2005 and July 2007, severe acute malnutrition dropped by almost 50 per cent, and global acute malnutrition decreased from 15.3 per cent to 11.2 per cent nationally. Despite this progress, some 300,000 children are treated annually for acute malnutrition nationwide, and the bulk of them are children under three years.

Thanks to semi-annual national nutrition surveys and bimonthly monitoring of 300 sentinel sites, UNICEF and its partners can target the most affected areas with scaled-up activities to respond to urgent needs. Supplies of therapeutic food and health monitoring are provided to all children treated for malnutrition. They receive therapeutic food, iron and vitamin A supplements to bolster the immune system, de-worming medication, measles vaccine and antibiotics. In addition, children who complete their treatment during the lean season (the months before harvest from April to September when household food stocks are scarce) get food rations to take home in order to prevent relapses.

In Niger’s most vulnerable zones, targeted distribution of supplementary foods is carried out for all children aged 6-35 months living far from malnutrition treatment centres. More than 300,000 children benefit from these efforts.

While responding to urgent needs, UNICEF and its partners also address the root causes of childhood malnutrition. One cause, for instance, is that mothers and other caregivers often lack information about healthy feeding practices and hygiene.

At the supplementary feeding centre in Mayahi, Sa’adé and Alhassane join other women and children under a millet-stalk shelter. There they listen to Community Health Worker Nana Mariama’s lessons on subjects such as breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life, introducing age-appropriate foods to six-month-olds, and creating balanced meals for the family.

During her visits to the supplementary feeding centre, Sa’adé has learned which foods are best for children Alhassane’s age. “Before, I fed him whatever I had on hand. But now I feed him beans, eggs and foods that the rest of the family eats.” Thanks to access to life-saving treatment and information, Alhassane can look forward to a future of healthy development.

Women find out about the availability and effectiveness of malnutrition treatment through a variety of community outreach activities. UNICEF, the Government of Niger and partners from non-governmental organizations broadcast radio programmes in the regions’ local languages on subjects such as identifying and treating malnutrition. Community health workers, like Nana Mariama, make the rounds of rural villages to spread their messages of good health and nutrition. They work with community-based growth promotion teams to identify malnourished children and refer them for treatment at care and feeding centres.

A lot has been done to improve the nutrition situation of children, but far too many are still at risk of malnutrition. Improvement of the situation will come only from a sustained support to improve access to health care, access to education and access to life-saving information on managing childhood illnesses, on practising good hygiene and on preparing balanced diets to reduce malnutrition and child mortality – thus ensuring healthy growth and development.

Sa’adé and Alhassane bring hope to their community. When Sa’adé’s neighbour noticed the improvement in Alhassane’s health, she asked what to do for her own underweight son. At Mayahi’s supplementary feeding centre, Sa’adé says, “I brought her with me today to show her where to find help for her child.”

* Le total comprend un taux de recouvrement maximal de 7%. Le taux réel de recouvrement pour les contributions sera calculé conformément à la décision 2006/7 du Conseil d’administration du 9 juin 2006.