In the Sahel, the annual "hunger gap" period has only just begun, but in some regions of Chad the malnutrition situation is already worse than usual. In a few weeks' time, the rains will have rendered a lot of the country inaccessible and it will be impossible to reach children in need of treatment. For the international medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), responding to this crisis has become a race against time.
Every week, more than 500 children suffering from severe malnutrition are being admitted to MSF’s five nutrition projects in Chad. Food stocks are dwindling fast, but in the Sahel regions of the country the first harvest will not be ready for another two months. Although this is a familiar scenario, in 2012, a combination of poor rainfall and rising food prices has made the situation worse.
Not a new problem
"Malnutrition is not a new problem in Chad. We estimate there to be one in ten children suffering from acute malnutrition in the Sahelian throughout the year," says Alexandre Morhain, MSF's head of mission in Chad. "A poor harvest, a disease outbreak like the measles epidemic at the beginning of the year, or a combination of the two, and tens of thousands of children become malnourished."
In some villages in the Batha and Salamat regions, evaluations carried out by MSF in February revealed a very worrying acute malnutrition rate of over 20 per cent. In Am Timan, in the east, the number of children admitted to MSF's nutrition programme between January and mid-June was up almost 30 per cent compared to the same period in 2011. And in the district of Bokoro, to the east of N'Djamena, a rapid evaluation conducted at the end of June showed acute malnutrition rates to be over 13 per cent.
The Chadian authorities and humanitarian operators raised the alert early on and an emergency response was launched last winter. As a result, 127,000 severely malnourished children are likely to receive care in 2012, twice as many as last year.
MSF's response to the crisis includes expanding its existing programmes and opening three additional projects. In Massakory, where MSF is already running a paediatrics and nutrition project, two new decentralised treatment centres will be set up and in MSF's intensive therapeutic feeding centre in Am Timan an additional 20 hospital beds have already been opened to cope with the inflow of severely malnourished children. New projects have also been started in Biltine, Abou Deïa and Yao, in the east and centre of the country.
The number of therapeutic feeding centres in Chad has doubled in a year and in several regions aid workers have begun distributing food supply, including supplements adapted to the needs of young children.
Rainy season to hamper activities
It will be difficult to continue these activities once the rainy season is underway. In the Sahel area, the population is spread out, the roads are little more than sandy dirt tracks and the villages are far apart. Considerable resources are needed to reach all the children suffering from malnutrition. The first rains have already arrived, in a few weeks the roads will be impassable.
In Yao, MSF is trying to treat as many children as possible before the villages become totally unreachable. The teams are travelling between 18 peripheral consultation sites, where they are actively screening children for malnutrition.
'Malnutrition prevention and treatment should be offered all year round'
"In Chad, and in all the other Sahel belt countries, an emergency response should not be the only option. It feels a bit like we're just discovering the problem of malnutrition, like it's something new, when in fact it's recurrent and structural," explains Michel-Olivier Lacharité, MSF's programme manager in Chad. "In addition to emergency operations for dealing with particularly serious situations, malnutrition prevention and treatment should be offered all year round and be an integral part of basic care for children, like routine immunisation."
In Massakory, in the Hadjer Lamis region, the MSF project launched in 2010 is looking for ways of making this integration possible. As well as running a 200-bed hospital and providing support to eleven health areas, it has also trained non-medical personnel to carry out screening and treatment for malnutrition in the villages. There are two advantages to this approach - large numbers of children are receiving early treatment before their condition becomes critical, and patient numbers in the health centres are being kept down. And this is crucial in a country where the number of healthcare personnel is largely insufficient to meet the needs.
By mid-June, 10,000 severely malnourished children had been treated in MSF's therapeutic feeding centres in Chad. Approximately 500 Chadian and international personnel are currently working in five specialised hospitals and over 40 outpatient therapeutic feeding centres.
Evaluations are still underway in different parts of the country and MSF is ready to launch new programmes in the coming weeks.
MSF's other activities in Chad include treatment for vesico-vaginal fistula in Abeche and for malaria in Moïssala, in the south.
In April, MSF responded to a meningitis epidemic, treating more than 3,100 cases and vaccinating 470,000 people. Between January and May 2012, MSF also vaccinated more than 20,000 children against m