In Niger, which is suffering from famine, relief agencies are rushing to save the lives of thousands of children. Drought and locust invasions last year wiped out much of the country’s food supplies and children are most vulnerable to malnutrition.
Since January, Doctors without Borders has treated about 13,000 children in Niger for severe malnutrition. And there’s no let up. In the Maradi region, about 500 kilometers east of the capital Niamey, about a thousand children a week are coming to the group’s clinics for help. It is one of the areas hardest hit by the famine.
Dr. Milton Tektonidis is a consultant with Doctors without Borders in the town of Tahowa. He says, "We stepped up our operation dramatically as of March when we noticed that we are getting three times more admissions in a program that had been running here for three or four years. And since then it’s been really hectic, as we’ve tried to expand as much as possible. Now there are some other agencies in the UN moving up. So, that’s helpful but right now we’re still running like crazy. It’s a full emergency."
Kari Adjibade, UNICEF’s representative in Niger, says children are most affected by the famine there.
"They are the most vulnerable to food shortage. That has a direct impact on their development, including brain development. That’s the reason why we should pay particular attention to them," he says. Adults, Mr. Adjibade says, fare better, longer in famine conditions.
Dr. Tektonidis says besides suffering from severe malnutrition, many children face disease as well.
"Yeah, it’s a cycle. The two go together. So one makes the other more common and vice versa. If they’re malnourished they get sicker more easily and if they get sick it throws them into a worse malnutrition," he says.
He says health workers now have a specific treatment that works very well in malnourished children.
"There’s a very special product that we’re using now that came out in the last five years. It’s really a simple product based on peanut butter and dried skim milk, sugar and oil and a special mineral mineral/vitamin mix specially designed for malnourished children. And this is the mainstay now of treatment. It’s revolutionized the treatment of severe malnutrition because it’s permitted us to treat many more people by treating them on an out-patient basis and only treating the severest ones on an in-patient basis," he says.
UNICEF’s Kari Adjibade says the therapeutic feeding is used to treat both moderate and severe malnutrition cases.
"For moderate malnutrition, that concerns some 200,000 children, who need some medical and food assistance. And you have those who are severely malnourished. We are talking about some 30,000 children concerned, who should be immediately assisted through, what we call, therapeutic feeding," he says.
Once the patients are healthy enough to go home, relief agencies often give them a month’s worth of rations. But the bulk of the food aid comes from the UN World Food Program. The WFP has begun a series of airlifts to Niger that will deliver emergency rations to about 80,000 people. However, it estimates that more than a million people throughout Niger are at risk of starvation.
Warnings about an impending famine were issued by various groups and agencies last October. But the response was not enough to prevent the crisis.
Dr. Tektonidis says unfortunately the famine in Niger isn’t the first time response to an emergency has been slow.
"It’s always slow, that’s the problem. It’s always slow. Between the time that the alert is given, between the time money is bled out so that the WFP can get its budget filled, there’s always a delay. It’s worse in some situations. Here, Niger is a neglected country. (In) Ethiopia, they’ve learned how to respond quickly. They have a better system to publicize and get the media there quickly. But here it’s neglected and its happened later. But we see this all the time because there’s no real emergency stock ready to intervene quickly. And there’s always a delay between the time the journalists come, they ask for more money, the people watch TV and they start pressuring their governments," he says.
Meanwhile, UNICEF’s representative says long-term answers to prevent famine in Niger include modern farming and irrigation techniques, population control and empowering women through income generating projects.
He says, "In this traditional society where the men own everything, it’s a patriarchal society, the women don’t get rights to land. They don’t get access to the revenue of the family. That’s the reason why UNICEF is doing what we call empower a woman, to give them means for their own development."
In the meantime, the staff of Doctors without Borders, UNICEF and other agencies look for simple signs of hope among the malnourished children. A member of Doctors without Borders says if the children are strong enough to cry, she’s pleased. If they agree to eat, that’s a key first step. And if they ask for food, that’s wonderful.