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In Niger, Humanitarian Organization Racing Against Clock to Feed Undernourished

In Niger, the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders operates 32 therapeutic feeding programs for children suffering from severe malnutrition caused by the recent drought and locust invasion. The average number of patients they treated has increased from 1,000 a week in June of 2005 to 1,600 a week in July.

In the town of Maradi, Niger, health workers examine children to determine the level of care needed. They record their age, weight, height and past history. Indicators like significant weight loss, swollen bellies and limbs, hollow eyes often unable to produce tears, and a general state of apathy separate most of these children into either moderate or severe categories of malnutrition.

Upon examining a child, one health worker said, "This baby, her problem is moderate malnutrition. Now we know what to do." Children with moderate cases of malnutrition are given a supply of a vitamin-enhanced peanut butter called Plumpy Nut and sent back home. The severe cases, children too weak to eat on their own, are admitted along with their mothers for treatment and fed through feeding tubes.

One mother and child have been here 28 days. According to the mother, the child is improving. "When we came, the baby couldn't even swallow," she said. "Now she is starting to gain weight."

Dr. Chantal Umutoni says most recover in a short amount of time. "The average stay is two to three weeks," she explained. "That's when most children reach their target weights and can go home."

Dr. Umutoni says because malnutrition also weakens the immune system, many of the children also suffer from a variety of infections and diseases including pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea. Diarrhea is the number one killer of infants and children in Africa, Asia, and Latin America claiming almost 3.3 million lives per year. “When kids come here with diarrhea we first fight against dehydration. Depending on the degree of dehydration, if it is serious or moderate. If they are not vomiting we re-hydrate them with an oral solution."

Malnutrition and the medical problems associated with it are relatively simple to treat. The difficulty here in Niger for organizations like Doctors Without Borders says Dr. Chanal Umutoni, is the overwhelming number of children in need. “The big challenge is to be able to treat all the children who need it because they are more and more coming and our big challenge is to see as many as we can."

In the year before the drought, Doctors Without Borders treated about 10,000 children in Niger. This year they expect to treat over 30,000 children.

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