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UN Agency: Hundreds of Thousands Need Food in Mauritania

FILE - A man walks away with a bag of rice at a food distribution center run by the Spanish NGO Accion Contra el Hambre (Action Against Hunger) in Tarenguel, Mauritania, May 30, 2012.

The World Food Program is warning that hundreds of thousands of people in Mauritania are going hungry and malnutrition rates among young children are rising at an alarming rate. The agency says it urgently needs $11 million to assist the country.

Part of the problem, the WFP said, is the instability spilling over from neighboring Mali. About 50,000 refugees from northern Mali are included among the 540,000 particularly vulnerable people the agency needs to assist.

Unfortunately, WFP coffers are almost empty. Spokeswoman Bettina Luescher told VOA the agency has only enough money to provide school lunches to impoverished children for two months.

“That is one of the big points that we always have. It is a crucially important social safety net to have school meal programs because that is often, in some cases, the only meal these children get,” she said.

Luescher said the increase in the number of children suffering from malnutrition is very worrisome.

The latest figures show 14 percent of children under 5 are acutely malnourished, 4 percentage points higher than last year. In some regions of the country, the rates are as high as 28 percent, almost double the World Health Organization’s critical emergency threshold.

Luescher said children who are acutely malnourished are likely to face lifelong, debilitating consequences.

“If children under 1,000 days in their life do not get good nutrition, their brains will never develop as other healthy children would," she said. "They will never be as productive as other healthy children would.”

The WFP said nearly 1 million people in Mauritania, about one in four, do not have enough food to eat to lead healthy lives. Of these, it said, more than 200,000 are severely food insecure and need immediate, lifesaving assistance. WFP said female-led families are the worst off.