Malnutrition in Sahel

One million severely malnourished children will be treated this year in the countries of the Sahel*. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is scaling up its emergency response. Growing awareness of the extent of the crisis has led to improved care. Nonetheless, these recurrent nutritional crises in the Sahel will require a new approach to prevent children from suffering from malnutrition, year after year. MSF’s Susan Shepherd, pediatrician, and Stéphane Doyon, nutrition specialist, respond to questions about this. 

One million children suffering from severe malnutrition will be treated this year by governments and aid organizations across the Sahel. How should we interpret this number?

Susan Shepherd: It’s both a failure and a success. The failure is that each year, countries within the Sahel will face recurrent, large-scale nutritional crises that are growing even worse in some countries. One million malnourished children – that’s an enormous figure. But the most important take away from this year is how all of the aid actors: governments, United Nations agencies, and NGOs, have managed the crisis. Because of this, the major success is - for the first time - that one million malnourished children will be treated in the Sahel, and the vast majority of these one million children will recover.

Stéphane Doyon: Prior to the 2005 nutrition crisis in Niger, malnourished children didn’t receive treatment and childhood malnutrition was virtually unrecognised. 1 million malnourished children receiving treatment doesn’t necessarily imply things are getting worse, but rather a major step forward in treatment. Improved malnutrition management results in large part from the political will summoned by those governments who wish to tackle this pathology. For the first time since the 2005 nutritional crisis in Niger, the most-affected countries have implemented ambitious response plans for treating malnourished children and established early preventive measures. Donors have committed to funding programmes for therapeutic foods and nutritional supplements that are adapted to the needs of infants, even if all the funds have not yet been released.

Is this year worse than usual?

Susan Shepherd: For young children in the Sahel, every year is difficult. The Sahel region is without a doubt the deadliest region in the world for young children. Malnutrition, along with early-childhood diseases and malaria (which takes off with the rainy season), is devastating. Between fragile healthcare systems and inadequate immunisation coverage, all the necessary conditions exist for high infant mortality rates.

Nonetheless, there are some good news. We are beginning to see the extent of the malnutrition problem in this region.  Effective prevention methods are now available, thanks to ready-to-use nutritious food supplements, with milk and adapted to the needs of children. A child who is immunised, is shielded from malaria, and eats the right kind of food, will not become malnourished.

Stéphane Doyon: Treating a million children is both ambitious – each of these countries faces its own particular constraints, but remains realistic – the will and the means are there. In Chad, for example, we are almost starting from zero: the response to the nutritional crisis this year will have to be built on top of a very weak health system and the intentions are to treat twice as many children this year (127,000) compared to 2011 (65,000). And the impending rainy season will make the deployment of aid even more complex. In Mali, political instability and the risk of kidnapping just create additional challenges.

In Niger the situation is substantially different.  In recent years, the country has addressed the issue of malnutrition head-on by improving the treatment of malnutrition and conducting prevention campaigns to reduce the impact of the crisis among young children. Nonetheless, despite all of these measures, almost 400,000 malnourished children will likely be treated this year in Niger, which is higher - but comparable - to the last two years. This is because Niger’s malnutrition problem, just like the malnutrition problem in the other countries of the Sahel, is endemic. If we really wish to change things, our entire approach to malnutrition should be re-imagined in order to blunt its impact and lessen infant mortality.

How to break the cycle?

Stéphane Doyon: Today, the management of this nutritional crisis is done in emergency mode. When we speak of an emergency, we are mostly referring to humanitarian interventions. This is where we run into one of the major challenges to enacting true change: for governments, these models of humanitarian action are difficult to repeat and to sustain over the long term. Therefore, we have to break out of this emergency response model, and start developing a longer term approach. Another challenge lies in understanding what exactly malnutrition is: a medical problem, related to a lack of food that satisfies the particular needs of children. Countries which have successfully addressed the problem of childhood malnutrition include nutrition in health systems. Long-term solutions should therefore include medical responses; development, agriculture and treatment of malnutrition are all complementary.

Susan Shepherd: Malnutrition should be treated any time and anywhere it occurs, just like any other early-childhood illness. Early treatment and malnutrition prevention measures should be implemented the same way immunisations are for childhood diseases. Food for a young child is just as important as being immunised and sleeping under a mosquito net! The idea is therefore that the treatment and prevention of malnutrition should be integrated into a country’s health system, and treated as true public health measures.

However, to reach this point, we need to make prevention and treatment as simple as possible for mothers because it is thanks to the mothers that the treatment of children can now be done at home, instead of in the hospital. Mothers are also the ones who have made the preventive distribution of ready-to-use supplementary foods such a success, since they are the ones who administer these foods to their child. Today, in MSF’s nutritional programs throughout the region, we are trying out different operational strategies as a way to find the most practical and effective approach possible. For example, we are thinking of having the mothers themselves measure the MUAC (middle upper arm circumference) to assess the nutritional status of their child. The solutions are out there, we just have to find them.

* Source: UNICEF