Discovering the impact of malnutrition among children in Niger

Published: 3 October 2012 16:59 CET

By Julie Lorenzen

More than one million children in West Africa are at risk of acute malnourishment due to the drought, and this has effects beyond the immediate needs for sustenance. Malnutrition weakens the immune system and makes learning harder.

This year West Africa has been struck by a drought affecting more than 18 million people. And while many people suffer, the drought has a particularly dramatic effect on children.

“Malnourishment damages the brain and because of that the children develop more slowly,” Dr Hamidou Issa, who is leading the IFRC health care programme in Niger, says. “Learning in school will be harder, and they will always be behind in relation to children who have been fed properly.”

“In the short term, the child will be physically weaker and more susceptible to illnesses such as malaria and respiratory diseases. Due to the lack of bacteria control, a simple cold can evolve into pneumonia.”
More than one million children in West Africa are at risk of acute malnourishment – a third of which live in Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world. As the leader of a health care clinic for undernourished children in Niger’s poor Dosso-region, Abdou Mahamdou sees that all the time.

“The drought is worse this year, and even more children are malnourished than last year. Most children come with swollen feet, hair breaking, and are very skinny. It increases child mortality,” Mahamdou says.

80 per cent of the children in the clinic are malnourished. From January to June this year, the clinic treated 436 moderate - and 65 severely malnourished children - last year the numbers were 105 and 25.
Volunteers from the national Red Cross society search the villages affected by drought to find the starving children. The volunteers advise mothers on health issues and encourage them to visit a clinic if the child is in need.

The work of the volunteers is an important investment. It costs eight times more to treat a starving child at the health care clinic than to take action in time in the villages and prevent the malnutrition in the first place.

“If you treat malnourishment in time, the child will recover without further injury. The faster the treatment, the better the results,” Dr Hamidou Issa says.