Niger food crisis: Will the alarm finally be heard?

© Anne Ycopy; Anne Yzebe/MSF Click image for full viewcopy; A journalist, who came to visit the MSF centre, describes the food shortage affecting part of the population, and its devastating effect on the children she has seen. The report is heartening for the MSF team. Finally the media are talking about the situation, which is bound to get worse over the coming months.
Diary of a typical day Monday May 23, Maradi, Niger At 6:00am, the MSF team is already sitting around the table having a quick breakfast. It is not too hot yet, but everyone drinks as much fluid as possible in anticipation of the heat, which will soon be well over 40°c. The second item on the RFI morning news happens to be about the alarming nutritional situation in the region. The journalist, who came to visit the MSF centre yesterday, describes the food shortage affecting part of the population, and its devastating effect on the children she has seen. The report is heartening for the MSF team. Finally the media are talking about the situation, which is bound to get worse over the coming months. Will the alarm raised by MSF finally be heard? The first to leave the MSF house are Gonzague and Véronique, a young doctor and nurse. They will join their team of Niger nurses and nutritional assistants and set out for two days in the bush. Their mission will be to identify severely malnourished children in villages in the area and begin appropriate medical and nutritional treatment based on their condition. They will also carry out the weekly check-ups of children who are already in the severe malnutrition treatment program. Each child will be weighed, auscultated and receive the necessary care. In addition, nutritional supplements will be distributed so that the children can regain some weight. Growing numbers of children at the MSF feeding centre At 7:30, Annick, the nurse in charge of the Maradi feeding centre, meets up with her team. They are to finish the work they started yesterday rearranging the centre. With the growing number of children staying at the centre, more space is needed for the little patients and their mothers. There are already 210 children hospitalized, 20 of whom are in intensive care. Last week, 391 young children were admitted to the Maradi program; half of these required hospitalization because of their condition. This was 30% more than the previous week. © Anne Ycopy; Anne Yzebe/MSF Click image for full viewcopy; The visible effects of malnutrition are especially difficult to bear: toddlers whose wrinkled faces resemble those of elderly people.
While Dr. Innocent does his rounds, the young doctor, Vanessa, concentrates on the most serious cases in the intensive care unit. After a few hours they get together to discuss some particularly worrying cases. What can be done for little Yassera, who has been in hospital for three months suffering from tuberculosis? They suspect she may have contracted viral meningo-encephalitis. Since the beginning of the Maradi mission, Vanessa, who is specialized in paediatric oncology in Rouen, France, faces one surprise after another: one-year-olds weighing scarcely three kilos - the weight of a newborn - when they ought to weigh around six. The visible effects of malnutrition are especially difficult to bear: toddlers whose wrinkled faces resemble those of elderly people. Organizing the distribution of hundreds of tonnes of food Germain has gone to the warehouses to supervise the loading of food onto a truck to supply the MSF program in Dakoro, 100kms north of Maradi. His colleague, Christian, has gone to town to rent two extra trucks for the fleet of vehicles needed to transport supplies of food to the various MSF program sites. © Anne Ycopy; Anne Yzebe/MSF Click image for full viewcopy; In mid-May MSF started distributing food ration to families of children in the programmes. The rations contain enough food to feed a family of eight for a week. When a child leaves the feeding programme, we give his/her family enough food for a month. A cargo plane carrying 120 tonnes of enriched flour arrived mid-April. In addition, 150 tonnes of millet, 75 tonnes of beans and a dozen tonnes of oil were purchased locally - a further 480 tonnes of supplies will be arriving soon by cargo ship.
The MSF teams are going to transport hundreds of tonnes of food into the region. And, with the rainy season around the corner when the roads will scarcely be passable, well-maintained 4x4 trucks will be essential. Dounia, a recently arrived pharmacist, checks drug stocks and identifies products that need to be ordered. Mego, the new doctor in charge of the MSF program in the Maradi region, goes to introduce himself to the head physician at the public hospital. They will discuss, in particular, the 12 children with tuberculosis being cared for at the MSF centre. At 11am Théo returns from his weekly clinic in Tiberi, a village near Maradi, bringing back eight children who need to be hospitalized. He quickly passes the children and their files on to the nurses at the centre and hurries back to Tiberi to rejoin his team, who are continuing the check-ups. Food shortages that affect some more than others At this point, a distinguished guest arrives to visit the centre - the Maradi Deputy, Salissou Dan Dagali. He wants to get a first-hand look at the situation and see the condition of the children being cared for. He is is visibly affected by what he sees, and promises to report to the Niamey government how urgent the situation is. Indeed, few people are aware of the seriousness of the situation because the problem of malnutrition is not obvious. The drought and locusts have certainly affected harvests, and prices have risen, but market stalls are still full. So while some families are experiencing severe food shortages, there are large stocks of food available. What MSF's nutrition surveys have shown is that certain villages, and especially certain population groups are particularly affected by the famine while others are managing to get by. The afternoon has been especially difficult in the intensive care unit at the Maradi MSF centre. Four children have died despite the care they have received. Two had just arrived in desperate condition. The others had been there for several days. One of them had measles, which aggravated the malnutrition. His mother had already lost two children to measles. © Anne Ycopy; Anne Yzebe/MSF Click image for full viewcopy; Losing children is an enormous frustration. It is partially compensated by the joy of seeing children, who arrive as skeletons, returning to their proper weight and their chubby cheeks.
Losing children is an enormous frustration. It is partially compensated by the joy of seeing children, who arrive as skeletons, returning to their proper weight and their chubby cheeks. When they do not suffer from any other illnesses, the children recover quickly and in just a week they can leave the centre and continue their treatment as outpatients. At the end of the day, Vanessa and Innocent will update their four local doctor colleagues who will be doing day and night duty in the intensive care unit. The team members meet up again at the MSF house and talk about their day. The logisticians are very excited because the system for beginning the distribution of hundreds of tonnes of food is ready. Families of children admitted to the MSF program will receive a weekly ration of five kilos of flour and one litre of oil to prepare the family meals. Providing children with food supplements is not enough when there is nothing left to eat at home. At the end of the treatment, families will leave the centre with a month's food ration consisting mainly of grains, beans and oil. Alarming statistics, further aid essential On the other hand, Annick has just finished doing the statistics for the previous week, and they are extremely alarming. The graph of children admitted to the program shows a steep rise. And that just represents activities in Maradi. Fortunately, over the last few days, MSF has opened two more centres in the region, and a third will be opening soon. But more help is desperately needed. Let's hope other aid agencies get involved quickly. Given the large number of severely malnourished children requiring care, MSF programs are not able to deal with children suffering from moderate malnutrition. But they, too, require assistance, so there is an urgent need for other organizations to take on this work.