Time is running out to save young lives in the Sahel

Published: 18 April 2012 11:19 CET

By Faye Callaghan in Burkina Faso

An occasional flutter of his eyelids is the only sign of life in Kinda’s frail, tiny body. At eight months he should weigh around nine kilos. Kinda weighs just five. He was admitted to hospital three days ago and is now receiving treatment for his malnutrition via a drip is his fragile hand.

His mother, 29-year-old Khady Chindo, sits on his bed, maintaining a vigil and praying for an improvement in his condition. Two of her six children have already died.

“We’ve seen as many malnourished infants in the first three months of this year as the whole of last year,” said Dr Kdonia Anicet, a paediatrician at Djibo hospital in north west Burkina Faso.

The drought across the Sahel is putting up to 23 million people at risk, six million of them in Burkina Faso. In the small, landlocked country of fourteen million, that means almost half the population will feel the effects of this drought.

“We have an ongoing problem with malnutrition in this country,” Dr Anicet said. “Mothers are not well educated about how to provide the right nutrition for their babies, especially when they don’t eat well themselves. We’re working with the Red Cross to teach women, particularly in remote communities, but the drought will only make things worse. I expect to see a lot more malnutrition cases here soon.”

In a tiny mud walled room in the remote village of Kamkamfogou, 250 kilometres from Djibo, Red Cross volunteers are working to prevent that. Every Friday mothers bring their babies for nutrition screening. They are weighed and their upper arm circumference measured to check if they are healthy. A green reading is good news, orange raises concerns and red means a referral to the nearest clinic for immediate intensive treatment.

Salamata Ali, a mother of two children, volunteers at the Red Cross clinic each week. “I weigh the babies and distribute food supplements to those who need it,” she said. As a member of the community she is known and trusted by fellow mothers and can give advice on keeping their babies healthy. “I like to be helping people like me during this difficult time,” she added, proud but modest about her vital volunteer work.

The drought in Burkina Faso is just starting to take its toll on the population. Families knew they would run out of food as the lack of rain destroyed their crops. Many are subsistence farmers often with no other sources of income. Most cut down to eating one meal a day several months ago. But for some, even that needs to be further reduced now.

And when people can find food, it’s often millet which has limited nutritional value, merely staving off the hunger pains. At this stage in the crisis there’s still time to act and save lives. With sufficient funding, the Red Cross can get nutritional supplements to the most in need and more volunteers out in the communities to refer sick children to hospital to hopefully save not just Kinda’s young life but thousands of others too