Niger: Battling malnutrition

Tens of thousands of children affected by acute malnutrition remained without access to treatment at the end of September 2005. As the hunger gap emerged, coinciding with seasonal peaks of malaria and diarrheal diseases, MSF staff expressed concern that many of these already weakened children would die.

A study conducted by Epicentre, MSF's epidemiological research partner, in late April 2005 (well before the "hunger gap" that runs from July until the October harvest) found that one in five children under age five and almost one in three children under 20 months of age were suffering from acute malnutrition in the provinces of Maradi and Tahoua. A second Epicentre study carried out in the region of Zinder in August 2005 confirmed these alarming findings.

Tens of thousands of children affected by acute malnutrition remained without access to treatment at the end of September 2005. As the hunger gap emerged, coinciding with seasonal peaks of malaria and diarrheal diseases, MSF staff expressed concern that many of these already weakened children would die.

Despite the growing crisis, the population still must assume the full costs of medical care, which the most vulnerable simply cannot afford. Similarly, what little food aid has been distributed has come with a cost to avoid endangering market dynamics, making it too expensive for the most affected.

MSF teams are treating children with severe malnutrition through a network of ambulatory feeding centers located in the Maradi, Tahoua and Zinder regions. Each week, children at these centers receive medical care and a therapeutic food supplement.

Because the most vulnerable families have exhausted their food reserves, MSF since May has provided each child's family with a weekly food ration composed of five kilograms of enriched flour and one liter of oil. When the child is cured and leaves the program, the family is given enough staple foods - cereal, beans and oil - to last another month.

The most severe and complicated cases among the severely malnourished are referred to one of MSF's ten inpatient feeding centers. Each center has sufficient capacity for 150 to 200 patients. They are fed and given intensive medical care until their conditions stabilize and they are able to return to one of the ambulatory centers.

To meet the challenges of the most difficult months of the hunger gap, MSF boosted the program's capacity and had already treated 35,000 children by September 2005. MSF medical teams estimate that they will treat more than 50,000 children for severe malnutrition by the end of 2005.

Despite emergency appeals launched by MSF in April and again in June, the response to the nutritional crisis in Niger has been woefully inadequate. In its June appeal, MSF called on international organizations such as Unicef and the World Food Program to assist the government in providing free medical care to all young children and sufficient, free food distributions - based on need - to the villages most affected by malnutrition.

MSF has worked in Niger at various times since 1985.

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