The United Nations says severe food shortages brought on by poor harvests have put tens of thousands of children in Niger at risk of severe, life-threatening malnutrition.
This mother has brought her unconscious, six-month-old son to a health center in the Maradi region of southern Niger. The doctor examining the baby says he suffers from severe malnutrition and dehydration.
The baby is incredibly skinny, the doctor says. His eyes are sunken in, his mouth gaping open. The baby is 6-months-old and weighs just two kilos, and the doctor says his condition is critical. He says the baby suffers from chronic malnutrition that has recently intensified into an acute episode.
Relief workers say severe food shortages currently sweeping the Eastern Sahel region will affect as many as 10 million people in coming months. The United Nations says 850,000 children are at risk.
Aid workers say the West African country of Niger will be the hardest hit. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, and hunger rates were already high among the country's children. A 2009 survey found that one in ten children, under age five, in Niger suffered from acute malnutrition.
Deputy director for the U.N. children's fund in Niger, Guido Borghese, said this year's food crisis could take the situation from bad to worse.
Borghese says if nothing is done, over the next 12 months, we could see as many as 1.2 million children suffering from moderate acute malnutrition and 378,000 affected by severe malnutrition. He says children with severe malnutrition are considered sick and need hospital treatment to avoid life-threatening complications.
So far this year, there have been 45,000 cases of severe malnutrition recorded, which UNICEF's Borghese says is significantly higher than last year's figures but lower than predicted. It is a sign, he says, that current intervention is working, but the situation is still precarious. The food crisis, he says, will not hits its peak until the summer.
Niger's government says half of its 15 million people are currently facing food insecurity.
Aid workers say the food shortage is a result of irregular rainfall in 2009 that led to poor harvests and severe lacks of water and grazing land for animals. High food prices and low wages, they say, have further aggravated the problem.
UNICEF's Borghese says families in Niger are extremely vulnerable to even slight climate changes that can then affect food availability. He says once children are affected by acute malnutrition, they get sick more easily and their physical and mental development can be delayed.
Borghese says they face two key challenges on the ground - ensuring there are enough trained health workers to identify and treat malnourished children and obtaining adequate supplies of nutrient-packed therapeutic food for those children who need it.
Partnered with international aid workers, Niger's government has launched an emergency response plan to address both general food security and malnutrition among especially vulnerable groups including children and pregnant or nursing women.
The United Nations World Food Program has expanded its efforts in Niger and plans to deliver food to more than two million people there from May to October. The WFP is calling for $180 million in funding, of which only about half has been received so far.