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Hunger Rates for Niger's Children Reach 'Alarming' Levels

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Relief workers in Niger say malnutrition rates for children under age five have reached emergency levels.  A deepening food crisis in the eastern Sahel threatens nearly half of Niger's 14 million people.

Worsening food shortages caused by irregular rainfall and poor harvests in 2009 threaten seven million people in Niger.  Aid workers say the country's children are in particular danger.  Niger is one of the poorest nations in the world and hunger rates already were high among the country's children.

A new government assessment says 17 percent of children under age five suffer from acute malnutrition, up from 12 percent in 2009.  Anything above 15 percent is considered past the emergency threshold.  In some of the most affected regions, child hunger rates have risen to between 19 and 22 percent.  The government survey also found that 3.2 percent of the country's children are severely malnourished and at risk of dying.

Since March, Niger's government has issued urgent calls for national and international aid.  Last month, the government invited the French section of Doctors without Borders to return to Niger, after being kicked out in 2008 by former president Mamadou Tandja.

The French section's president, Marie Pierre Allié, said this authorization to return means the government recognizes the problem of malnutrition and wants to deal with it.  She says the first step to effectively tackling the problem is to recognize that there are hungry children in this country, a fact that just a few years ago was difficult to acknowledge.

Relief workers have said delays in responding to a 2005 food crisis in Niger needlessly cost lives.  Former president Tandja refused to address risks of food crisis during his more than 10 years in office.  Mr. Tandja was ousted by a military coup in February of this year.

Allié says the French section of Doctors Without Borders will partner with a Nigerien organization, Forsani, to work in the Maradi region of south central Niger, specifically in the department of Madarounfa.

Allié said this year there are already a high number of cases of severe malnutrition, signaling a need to treat affected children.  She said her organization also will be distributing nutrient-rich food to children who are not yet sick, to keep them from getting malnourished.  Beginning next year, she said her group will work with health authorities to roll out a systematic prevention program that would provide regular food supplements to at-risk children, from six months to 12 years of age.

Malnutrition can have lasting effects on a child's mental and physical development.

Relief organizations, like the International Federation of the Red Cross, report the food crisis is worse than anticipated.  The Red Cross has called for additional funding to reach and treat at-risk children in Niger.

The United Nations World Food Program has announced it will double the amount of people receiving food aid in Niger to 4.5 million and increase supplementary feeding for children under age two and their families.  The WFP has called for an additional $100-million to ramp up its program.

The food crisis threatens as many 10 million people, across the Sahel region.  Although Niger has been the hardest hit, populations in Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso and Cameroon also are at risk.

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