Health leaders warn that malnutrition will soon increase among children in West Africa. As a World Health Organization-led conference held in Burkina Faso this week addresses primary healthcare in Africa, some officials say rising food prices will worsen an already prevalent problem of nutrition for African children. Ricci Shryock reports from Ouagadougou.

Twenty-eight percent of children in West and Central Africa are severely malnourished and UNICEF's Regional Director for the area, Esther Guluma, warns the problem is about to get worse.

"The rising prices of food are having a very serious impact on the nutritional status of children," she said.

More than 500 health leaders from around the world gathered in Burkina Faso this week for the International Conference on Primary Health Care Systems in Africa. At the conference, some officials said they were concerned about the impact that rising food prices would have on the health of Africa's children.

Guluma says governments must take actions.

"The commitment that we would like to see from governments that are here is, number one recognition that primary health care systems have to take into account the current rising prices and the crisis that may happen as a result and that they are committed to put in place a plan to assist their populations," she said.

At the conclusion of the three-day conference, African ministers of health and U.N. officials had agreed to the Ouagadougou Declaration to address improvements in African healthcare. The declaration urges governments to update national health policies and specifically address communicable diseases such as malaria, as well as child health.

Guluma adds that food availability and malaria are closely linked.

"Malnutrition combined with other diseases is the biggest cause of child death in our region," she said.

As the Health Minister for South Africa, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang also attended the conference. She says it is necessary to go beyond food production. They must also consider food quality.

"Important is to make sure that yes indeed there is food security. But then once you have the food on the table what do you do with it? It's not just the quantity, but it's also the quality," said Tshabalala-Msimang.

Next week West African ministers of trade and finance will convene in Abuja, Nigeria for an Economic Community of West African States-hosted meeting to discuss steps they can take to tackle the soaring food prices.