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Malnutrition crisis grips children trapped in western Burkina Faso

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  • Tougan, in Burkina Faso’s Boucle du Mouhoun region, is being surrounded by armed groups, who have cut off essential supply routes needed for food and medicines.
  • Eight months after MSF was forced to suspend activities following the killing of two of our staff, our teams have returned to Tougan assess children for malnutrition.
  • Our teams have found one in five children are affected by malnutrition, with one in 10 suffering its most severe form.

Paris – The situation is worsening by the day for people living in Tougan, a town in the Boucle du Mouhoun region of western Burkina Faso. An armed jihadist group has surrounded the town and cut off supply routes and main roads, leaving dire consequences for the town’s children, who are experiencing high rates of malnutrition. Almost 20 per cent of the children screened by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) last month in Tougan were found to be suffering from acute malnutrition.

Between 5 and 12 October, MSF teams were able to go to Tougan to assess the medical needs of its inhabitants – both local and displaced people. The new domestic humanitarian flights set up by UNHAS (United Nations Humanitarian Air Service) enabled MSF teams to conduct the medical assessment, eight months after two MSF staff members were killed in an attack on their vehicle near Tougan. The attack forced us to suspend our activities in the region.

In Tougan, MSF teams went door-to-door in neighbourhoods sheltering the most displaced people, screening children for malnutrition. With 882 children under the age of five screened, a total of 19.7 per cent have some form of acute malnutrition. Just under 10 per cent – 9.6 per cent – are suffering from its most severe form. The results point to a malnutrition crisis well in excess of emergency thresholds.UN thresholds for emergency levels of malnutrition are over 10 per cent of all screened people with all forms of acute malnutrition, and over two per cent for severe acute malnutrition.

People in Tougan tell us that they’re unable to cultivate their fields... We have every reason to believe that other towns and villages... may be enduring similar degrees of a malnutrition crisis. Moctar Abass, deputy head of MSF operations in Burkina Faso

“Given that we had suspended activities in the area and the months of deprivation and violence suffered by Tougan’s inhabitants, we were expecting to find a very serious humanitarian situation,” says Moctar Abass, deputy head of MSF operations in Burkina Faso. “The evidence of the deterioration in the children’s nutrition status confirmed our fears.”

Working in partnership with Burkina Faso’s health authorities, MSF is now preparing to ramp up the provision of treatment for malnourished children in Tougan. This will include supporting community health workers and activities in health centres, and increasing bed capacity to admit and treat the sickest children. Drugs and stocks of ready-to-use therapeutic foods have also been flown in to assist Ministry of Health staff who remain in the area.

Around 36,000 displaced people are sheltering in Tougan in a country, which, according to the statistics provided by the national commission charged with registering refugees, is already hosting more than 2 million.

“People in Tougan tell us that they’re unable to cultivate their fields outside the town, that they are almost entirely reliant on military convoys for food,” says Abass. “Sadly, their situation is not unique. We have every reason to believe that other towns and villages that are also surrounded may be enduring similar degrees of a malnutrition crisis.”  

Since early 2023, people in Boucle du Mouhoun have been caught between the fighting and attacks that have intensified in a region that, up until then, had been less affected than the Est, Centre-Nord and Sahel regions by the conflict opposing Burkina Faso’s security forces and armed groups. Armed groups across the country have been using a brutal modus operandi to surround and cut off dozens of towns. The inhabitants of neighbouring villages are ordered to leave, attacked – and sometimes even massacred. Mines and other explosive devices are laid out around towns and no one is allowed in or out of the town the armed groups are targeting. Vehicles are checked and anyone daring to defy their orders is aggressed. Very quickly, food, drugs and basic necessities run out, food prices shoot up and getting food in relies heavily on military convoys and humanitarian aid.

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