Images of the gaunt eyes and scrawny bodies of Niger's children shocked the world into action earlier this year, bringing aid that saved 90 per cent of the more than 300,000 children treated, but the impoverished country’s youngsters still face high levels of malnutrition, a new United Nations-backed survey warns.
Malnutrition rates range from 9 to 18 per cent and inadequate infant and young child feeding practices are likely causes, according to the survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the government of Niger, the United States Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta.
Niger experienced a serious food crisis in 2005 following erratic rainfall, locust invasions, and decreased access to food and basic health services during the 2004 growing season.
Over 300,000 malnourished children received treatment thanks to the Government, UNICEF and more than 20 international and national non-governmental organizations, with support from the international community.
“We are proud of this unique accomplishment,” Noel Marie Zagre, Head of Nutrition Section at UNICEF Niger, said, noting that 90 per cent of treated children recovered. “But the results of the survey we conducted confirm that the work is far from over.”
The crisis exacerbated the country’s existing problem of structural malnutrition and the survey results will be used by the Government, UNICEF and their partners to plan nutrition programmes for 2006.
The survey helped identify underlying causes of malnutrition. Cultural factors and social behaviours, such as inadequate infant and young child feeding practices, have a major impact on structural malnutrition. Taboos about certain foods such as eggs and fish complicate the development of healthy feeding habits. In certain societies, for instance, eggs are forbidden for a child because it is believed he will become a thief.
Thus, strategies must include in-depth studies on this issue and programmes for behaviour change to effectively fight malnutrition. “Structural reduction of Niger’s high malnutrition rates will come only as these roots are addressed long term. We can settle for nothing less,” UNICEF country representative Karim Adjibade said.
An action plan based on the survey results includes: continued support for Government and NGO therapeutic feeding centres; prevention through behaviour change, improved feeding practices and systematic de-worming; support for providing access to free basic health care for children under five; and support for Government efforts to design a national nutrition policy based on mid- and long-term perspectives.