Hunger season predicted to be severe in West African Sahel The annual hunger season looks like it will be particularly serious in the West African Sahel this year. Some areas could face nutritional crises in the coming months. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is expanding its response to this seasonal peak in malnutrition, while also developing new long-term approaches to the problem. A food crisis has been declared in the West African Sahel. UNICEF estimates that up to 15 million people in six countries are facing food insecurity. In a region where global acute malnutrition rates — a standard measurement of malnutrition among children — regularly approach 10 percent, a full-blown nutritional crisis can easily arise.

In Chad, a community agent monitors children for malnutrition by measuring the circumferences of their upper arms.

Chad © Simon Petite
A community agent monitors children for malnutrition by measuring the circumferences of their upper arms.
  MSF has not yet seen a significant increase in malnutrition cases in most of its nutritional programs. But the organization had to open new malnutrition treatment programs in two towns in Chad, where rates of acute malnutrition over 20 per cent were reported. Teams are evaluating the nutritional situation elsewhere in Chad, as well as in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Senegal. "It is too soon to know the extent of the expected nutritional crisis," says Stéphane Doyon, manager of MSF's malnutrition campaign. "Traditionally, the most difficult period is still ahead, between May and July. However, we already project that hundreds of thousands of children will suffer from severe acute malnutrition, as they do every year in this region." In Niger alone, 330,000 children were treated for severe acute malnutrition in 2010, a crisis year. But in 2011, considered a good year for farming, the number of children treated still totaled 307,000. This suggests a recurring crisis. "We have to rethink what constitutes a crisis, and what is normal in this region," Doyon says. "More than 300,000 children severely malnourished, this is an enormous number — and that's just in Niger. Emergency humanitarian response is necessary because it saves lives, but it cannot be the only option." Warnings issued last fall by the governments of six countries in the region made it possible to plan an ambitious response. But this plan will not be easy to implement. Financing has yet to be obtained, and accessing the region's most remote areas will be a challenge. In addition, insecurity and violence in certain areas are already complicating the deployment of aid. People’s access to healthcare varies considerably from one country to another, and even within countries. Aid actors face a complex task. Many aid organizations in the region have agreed that they must move from emergency response to measures that can assist the long-term fight against malnutrition. MSF is expanding its activities in the region in response to urgent needs, but is also implementing long-term strategies to combat the recurring malnutrition crisis in the Sahel. Programs that MSF has been operating for several years — particularly in Niger, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso — have been designed both to treat children most at risk, and also to find new ways to address the underlying dynamics of recurrent malnutrition. "No one has a singular solution, but we now know that treating children by giving mothers responsibility for their care and encouraging prevention by using specialized milk-based products offer extremely encouraging results," Doyon says. "Our objective is to help identify the most simple, economical approaches possible so that all children have access to them, just like regular vaccinations or access to healthcare, which have already been recognized as effective in reducing child mortality." In 2011, MSF treated more than 100,000 severely malnourished children in Niger alone. More than 90 per cent of them recovered. In Niger and Mali, MSF also provided milk-based nutritional supplements to more than 35,000 children in conjunction with its regular pediatric programs.

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