Cameroon is often touted as a nation endowed with enormous agricultural potential. It boasts abundant rainfall and fertile lands allowing the cultivation of diverse crops.
However, the middle-income oil producer is home to 44 percent of all undernourished children in the six-member Economic Community of Central African States, CEMAC. UNICEF says malnutrition afflicts three out of ten of Cameroonian children.
Experts blame the high number on poverty, ignorance, political neglect and epidemics.
The situation, illustrated by growing numbers of stunted and emaciated children, has alarmed child health advocates.
Ines Lezama, a nutrition expert with UNICEF Cameroon, says the country "has been in the red-list (danger zone) for a long time. We have evidence from our latest surveys in 2011 that the rate of stunting or acute malnutrition is going up."
Malnutrition rates vary according to region – ranging from mild prevalence in the fertile south to more severe in the Sahelian and drought-prone northern regions on the fringes of the Sahara desert.
The poverty-stricken area is home to one-third of the country’s over nine million kids. They face various hardships including difficult access to safe drinking water and sanitation, recurring floods, cholera outbursts and frequent crop failures.
However, the main market in Garoua, chief town of the North Region some 1,200km from the capital, Yaoundé, flourishes with imported – but expensive -- foodstuffs.
Vegetable vendor, Mohamadou Yakubu says abundant harvests in the country’s south guarantee supplies for about three months of the year.
"During the rainy season," he explains, "we ensure adequate stocks of cabbages, carrots, lettuce, avocadoes and potatoes from the country’s south. My customers are mostly salaried workers as the vegetables are too expensive for the poor masses. Costly transportation and exorbitant taxes result in the high prices."
He says during the dry season, supplies thin out and become more expensive. Ordinary people are often restricted to a small number of traditional foods, including a starchy type of couscous made from maize, millet, or sorghum.
He says the result is endemic malnutrition sustained by a lack of foods containing vitamins, minerals and energy.
Within walking distance from the market is the Garoua Regional Hospital. Its pediatric ward includes a center established in 2009 with UNICEF support that provides free therapy for malnourished children.
Amadou Alouk, one of the hospital's two nurses, says thans to the center, malnutrition-related deaths have dropped from an average of six per month for every thirty registered patients.
"Unfortunately in June, we recorded six deaths,":he says. "Most are children of the poor who cannot afford proper medication and rely on traditional medicines or come for treatment too late.
Alouk’s account is suddenly interrupted by a cluster of wailing women. One of them, Tchinakoui Rebecca, a 34-year-old mother of four, has just lost a baby.
"I don’t know what killed him," she says. "All I know is that he had stomach pains."
Medics say the two-week-old died of diarrhea, a leading cause of malnutrition in the region where open defecation is the norm.
Meantime, victims of malnutrition suffer a number of issues, including impaired intellectual development, visual impairment, and susceptibility to infections.
Experts add that malnutrition drains household incomes and significantly slashes human productivity.
Cameroon’s budget does not allocate funding for nutrition.
However, UNICEF recommends investing US$31.3 [15,650 FCFA] per child per year to significantly curtail the scourge.
The UN agency has been partnering with several organizations in the hardest-hit zones. They provide free supplementary and fortified foods, promote exclusive breastfeeding, and train volunteers to conduct early screening for malnutrition.
However, efforts to improve nutrition remain challenging. An estimated 20,000 agents are needed to provide nationwide coverage. Support is also needed for deworming campaigns, nutrition courses in schools and the increased distribution of therapeutic foods.
In March, the government joined a global crusade called SUN, aimed at Scaling Up Nutrition. But observers warn that until the political will is translated into concrete action, malnutrition will continue to endanger the wellbeing of millions of Cameroonian children.