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Funds needed urgently to fight malnutrition in Mauritania

UNICEF Image: UNICEF image
© UNICEF Mauritania/2006
At a UNICEF-supported community feeding centre in Mauritania’s remote region of Brakna, children receive food and care.
By Yves Willemot and Brahim Ould Isselmou

BRAKNA, Mauritania, 4 May 2006 – Emmenmnin Mini Ahmed Mamhoud is a young mother of three children, ages six, four and two. Just before she gave birth to her first child, Ms. Mamhoud and her husband decided to leave their traditional nomadic life. They fixed their tent in Bouhdida, a small town in Mauritania’s Brakna region, about 250 km east of the capital, Nouakchott.

The family has been living in extreme poverty. They survive on food from their little farm and the one goat that gives them some milk. Because of the bad harvests, Ms. Mamhoud and her husband have been obliged to borrow food from a local shopkeeper. They repaid part of the debt from their meagre harvest this year, jeopardizing their own survival. 

“This year we will have to borrow again,” says Ms. Mamhoud, describing how a vicious cycle of poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition is perpetuated.

© UNICEF Mauritania/2006
Emmenmnin Mini Ahmed Mamhoud feeds her three children, whose condition is now improving after regular attendance at the local feeding centre.
Risk of severe malnutrition

Across West Africa, the countries of the Sahel – including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – are facing dangerously high levels of child malnutrition. 

Harvests here have been bad for three years due to droughts, floods and insects. The critical situation prompted the United Nations to launch a consolidated appeal for $92 million in humanitarian aid in late March, a critical effort to avoid a repeat of the acute food crisis that hit Niger last year.

“In Mauritania, one child out of three faces chronic malnutrition,” says UNICEF Representative Souleymane Diallo. “In extreme poor districts such as Brakna, up to one child out of two is malnourished.”

Mr. Diallo adds that approximately 200,000 children in Mauritania are malnourished and that poor nutrition is the underlying cause of half of all child mortality in the country.
To help address this crisis, UNICEF is supporting community centres where moderately malnourished children are fed twice a day with a locally prepared mix of corn, sugar, oil and milk. 

Health worker Cheikh Ould Lekhzine has been running the centre in Bouhdida for a year. UNICEF provides him with the food items necessary to prepare the feeding mixture.

Thanks to the feeding programmes, children in Bouhdida and other remote villages have not yet fallen into severe forms of malnutrition. But Mr. Lekhzine is concerned. “Families have very little to feed themselves,” he worries. “As the little stock they have kept from the last harvest is consumed, the risk of children falling into more severe forms of malnutrition is real.”

© UNICEF Mauritania/2006
At UNICEF-supported community centres across Africa’s Sahel region, moderately malnourished children are being fed twice a day with a locally prepared mix of corn, sugar, oil and milk.
‘We should act now’

The Government of Mauritania – together with UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners – has been working to ensure food security and fight moderate malnutrition in order to prevent children from becoming severely malnourished.

WFP operates food distribution programmes, while UNICEF focuses on helping children through the community feeding centres. When mothers come to the centres, UNICEF gives them advice on improving child nutrition.

“Exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months and good weaning practices are the easy but life-saving messages we share with mothers,” says Mr. Diallo. “It is a way of keeping children in good nutritional health and away from the feeding centres. In the long term, children and families should not become dependent of them.”

UNICEF hopes donors this year will react in time to avoid a grim replay of last year’s devastating images of starving children in the Sahel.

“We know the situation. We have the strategy in place,” notes Mr. Diallo. “We should act now to avoid the drama of Niger last year to be repeated here in Mauritania. Let’s do it.”

Sabine Dolan contributed to this story from New York.



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