400,000 children in north-east Nigeria at risk of severe acute malnutrition

Without treatment, one in five of those children — more than 75,000 — are likely to die this year

By Katerina Vittozzi
UNICEF Nutrition Officer Aishat Abdullahi (left) assesses seven-month-old Umara for malnutrition
13 December 2016

UPDATE (January 2017): The malnutrition situation in northeast Nigeria remains critical. The number of cases of children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition is extremely high, with the crisis in Borno state most acute. In 2016, working with partners, UNICEF treated 160,000 children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. Although UNICEF has made significant progress in reaching children and their families with healthcare, treatment for malnutrition, safe water, sanitation and hygiene services, education and child protection, a persistent lack of funding continues to hamper the response effort. Learn more: UNICEF's Humanitarian Action for Children 2017 >

UNICEF estimates that 400,000 children in north-east Nigeria will suffer severe acute malnutrition this year. The story of 7-month old Umara shows what life-saving treatment can achieve.

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria, 13 December 2016 – Fanna Mohammed is worried about her son. Seven-month-old Umara is thin and listless. He rests his head against his mother's shoulder as she carries him in her arms. It's impossible to get him to raise a smile.

The family fled their village in a rural area of Borno state earlier this year due to the ongoing Boko Haram-related crisis. Now they live in an Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camp in the state capital Maiduguri. The camp is home to an estimated 20,000 people – 8,000 of those are children under the age of five.

Fanna says Umara has been ill for the past few week. He is showing physically signs of severe acute malnutrition. The bones on his chest and back are prominent. The skin around his arms and legs is loose.


Today, Fanna brought Umara to a UNICEF-supported medical clinic that's situated within the camp. A dozen or so other women are also there with their babies. They sit patiently on a long bench inside the tent, trying to keep their children entertained while they wait to be seen.

When it's Umara's turn, UNICEF Nutrition Officer Aishat Mohammed Abdullahi measures the circumference of Umara's mid-upper arm (MUAC). It's 9 cm – a healthy baby's measurement would be 12.5 cm. Next Umara is weighed. He's just 4.2 kg.

“The child is severely malnourished and dehydrated," explains Abdullahi. "Umara looks very down, he doesn’t laugh, he doesn’t play, he does not look okay at all.”

Life-saving treatment

Umara is immediately given life-saving treatment. Abdullahi shows Fanna how to feed her son with a packet of Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUFT). RUFT is a peanut-based paste that's high in calories and full of added vitamins and minerals. Three packets a day, for eight weeks can save the life of a child with severe acute malnutrition. Lying in his mother's arms, Umara slowly but surely eats the food. Before he's allowed home, the health team put him on a course of extra vitamin A, antibiotics and anti-malarial medicine.

Umara is one of more than 117,000 children across north-east Nigeria who is part of a UNICEF therapeutic feeding programme. But there are still thousands more who need urgent help.

UNICEF estimates that 400,000 children in north-east Nigeria will suffer severe acute malnutrition this year. Without treatment, approximately one in five of those children – more than 75,000 – is likely to die.

Umara has his arm measured
When his mother first brought Umara to the medical clinic his arm measured 9 cm. A healthy baby's measurement would be 12.5 cm. After a week of treatment, Umara has gained some weight and his arm now measures 9.7cm.
Umara’s improvement

A week later, Umara's back at the clinic for his second screening. There's a small, but steady improvement. His arm is plumper, at 9.7 cm and he's put on a little weight – the scales read 4.3 kg.

But it's at Umara's third screening that the improvement is more visible. He's put on yet more weight - 5.1 kg – and his arm circumference is now 10 cm. He's still classified as severely malnourished, but the improvement, both physically and in terms of his general well-being, had made staff optimistic that he will make a full recovery if he continues on the feeding programme.
"When Umara came for the third visit, he was looking okay," says Abdullahi smiling. "He was playing, laughing, he does not have any problem."

Umara's mother Fanna looks visibly relieved. For the first time since we met three weeks, she smiles as she holds a bright and engaged Umara in her arms.

"He can play, eat and drink now!" she says. "He is not being sick anymore. He is so happy!"

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