Despite progress too many children in Niger still face alarming malnutrition, UN warns

Despite progress too many children in Niger still face alarming malnutrition, UN warns

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As the impoverished West African country of Niger enters the “lean season,” when food from the last harvest runs out, too many children are still at risk of malnutrition despite much progress made over the past two years, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned today.

As the impoverished West African country of Niger enters the “lean season,” when food from the last harvest runs out, too many children are still at risk of malnutrition despite much progress made over the past two years, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warned today.

Although a lot has been done to improve the situation, “we must be ready and must scale up the response to save thousands child lives at risk during the lean season,” UNICEF country representative Akhil Iyer said.

“Improvement of the situation will come only from a sustained support to improve access to health care, access to life-saving information and practices, especially for women, access to education, especially for girls, and rural and community development.”

The latest national nutrition survey reveals that the proportion of children suffering from acute malnutrition is contained at 11.2 per cent at the national level, down from 15.3 per cent in October 2005. More importantly, as compared to October 2005, the severe form of acute malnutrition has been cut in half, illustrating the impact of the large scale intervention put in place in response to the 2005 food crisis.

“It means that thousands of child lives were saved but it also means that far too many child lives are on the brink” UNICEF’s Nutrition Chief in Niger Noel Zagre said.

The national average, however, conceals alarming disparities and trends at the regional level and for different age groups with children under three the most affected: 15.5 per cent of these are acutely malnourished. The situation is especially worrying in the region of Agadez, Diffa, Maradi and Zinder where severe acute malnutrition in those under three has sharply increased in the last months.

In two regions, acute malnutrition is above the emergency threshold of more than 15 per cent, revealing a recent and significant deterioration in children under five. The global acute malnutrition rate is at a troubling 19.6 per cent in Diffa and at 17.5 per cent in Agadez. In Maradi and Zinder, considered as prime farming areas, the situation is critical. Acute malnutrition rates increased sharply in the last six months, now respectively at 11.8 per cent and 14.2 per cent.

High rates of malnutrition in young children are rooted in the lack of access to age-appropriate food and feeding practices and the lack of access to basic health services. The situation is compounded by the lack of access of women and caregivers to life-saving information, education and support within a context of massive and pervasive poverty.

In response UNICEF is stepping up its support to the Government in coordinating a network of 21 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide therapeutic care for children not yet covered by the more than 900 facility and community-based feeding centres already operational. UNICEF provides staff training, therapeutic foods, essential medicine, anthropometric equipment and monitoring and counseling to nutritional centers.

In cooperation with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) UNICEF is also seeking to provide all children under three in all the regions, except Niamey, with free supplementary food for two months. In Diffa, the operation will be extended to all children under five and to pregnant and lactating women and will include de-worming and vitamin A supplementation.

Other measures include intensified community-based activities to prevent children from slipping into malnutrition and identify and refer malnourished children to care and feeding centers and increased emphasis on improved infant feeding practices, such as exclusive breastfeeding and age-appropriate additional foods together with vitamin and mineral supplementation, de-worming and malaria control.