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At a glance: Niger

Saving children’s lives during Niger’s nutrition crisis

© UNICEF WCARO/2005/Page
Lawali is spoon-fed lifesaving therapeutic milk by his mother at a UNICEF-supported feeding centre in Maradi, Niger.
As part of the launch of ‘Progress for Children No.4: A Report Card on Nutrition’, UNICEF is featuring a series of stories focusing on successful initiatives that can help counter the many threats to children's nutritional status.

MARADI, Niger, May 2006 – Back in August 2005, Lawali was a very weak five-month-old snuggled in his mother’s lap at a therapeutic feeding centre in Aguie village in the Maradi region of Niger. His mother was spoon-feeding him nutritious therapeutic milk, supplied by UNICEF to help severely undernourished children recover.

“He was so weak, he seemed almost dead,” said the mother. “He’s always been weak, not like my other children.”

Lawali was born in March 2005 when Niger was already in crisis as a result of food shortages, lack of access to essential foods, insufficient availability of essential health services and lack of vital information on child feeding and nutrition. But he was nursed back to health by both his mother’s breastmilk and a carefully monitored diet of therapeutic milk.

These days, the ‘hunger season’ is upon Niger and the rest of the Sahel – a vast, parched region of West Africa that is one of the poorest places on earth. With food stocks depleted and new crops not yet available, rates of child undernutrition in the region are already at emergency levels. And because of poverty and debt, the hunger season is becoming longer every year.

Even during the best of times, the countries of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) face some of the highest rates of undernutrition in the world. In 2005 the nutrition crisis in children was deemed unprecedented.
In a bid to avoid repeating the 2005 nutrition crisis that almost ended Lawali’s life, in March 2006 the United Nations launched a funding appeal for approximately $92 million to cover the food and nutrition needs of Sahelian countries for this year.

Worrying signs

Despite a good harvest in early 2006, many families in Niger had to sell their grain (rather than consume it themselves) to pay debts from 2005, when locust plagues and devastating drought plunged the Sahel into crisis. Because they have nothing else, many are reduced to eating the most basic ‘foods’ – berries, insects and animal feed.

Now there are worrying signs that thousands more children may die this year in the Sahel unless help arrives quickly.

© UNICEF WCARO/2005/Page
Curious onlookers surround a woman in Maradi as she prepares to take home the grain provided by a UNICEF-supported community cereal food bank.
“Our people who are going to the villages to check for moderate malnutrition inform us that right now some villages are almost empty [of people],” said Ester Ruiz de Azua of the non-governmental organization Action Against Hunger. “There is no food, and that means it is going to be really serious in the next month or two.”

With an average of eight children per family and low education levels, many of Niger’s families live a hand-to-mouth existence. Families plan poorly and bad nutrition habits die hard. Mothers stop breastfeeding too soon and often bring their babies to nutrition centres too late.

As a result, there is an urgent need for life-saving action – including systematic growth monitoring and scaling up of therapeutic and supplementary feeding centres. Development programmes are also needed to expand nutrition and health services for young children.

Early investment saves lives

The nutrition crisis primarily affects infants and young children under the age of two, who suffer from low birthweight, poor breastfeeding practices and inadequate complementary foods, and lack of access to basic health care services.

The UN funding appeal is intended to change what sometimes has seemed an inevitable cycle in the Sahel region, and a prompt response can make a profound difference. “Each time we can invest at an early stage, we know we are saving the lives of thousands and thousands of children,” says the UNICEF Representative in Niger Aboudou Karimou Adjibade.
The appeal will benefit 22 humanitarian projects in the Sahel in the areas of agriculture, food aid, nutrition and health, and involve several UN agencies and other partners.  The experience in Niger in 2005 underscores the effectiveness of prompt action.

From July through December 2005, 325,000 undernourished children benefited from UNICEF-supported feeding programmes, with recovery rates of about 90 per cent. UNICEF also was able to distribute to therapeutic feeding centres 4,259 tons of UNIMIX porridge, over 42 tons of therapeutic milk and 166 tons of Plumpy’nut, a vitamin-rich peanut paste.

This year, between January and mid-March, 33,895 undernourished children were admitted to the nutrition emergency programme supported by UNICEF.

Among the partners working alongside UNICEF and the Government of Niger in the massive campaign to fight undernutrition are other UN agencies and 24 international non-governmental organizations, including Action Against Hunger, Helen Keller International, Médecins Sans Frontières, Plan International and Save the Children.




UNICEF correspondent Jane O'Brien reports on UNICEF's work to support better infant care practices in Niger, where traditional beliefs discourage breastfeeding.
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