Care arrives for Niger's critically malnourished

The 300 women crammed into the courtyard of an eastern Niger clinic surged forward as cars loaded with food and medical equipment drove up at 8am.

“I heard that they are distributing food here,” said Khadija Abdourahmane, who had risen at dawn and walked nearly two hours to Madaroufa’s clinic on Friday, only to find others had spent the night awaiting the twice-weekly visit of one of 28 mobile feeding centres deployed in drought-stricken Niger by the international aid agency Médécins sans Frontières (MSF).

The mobile centres can be set up in 10 minutes, allowing medical workers to make lightning strikes in remote regions.

“First we will select the weakest among them, weigh them, screen them for malaria,” said Theodore Bitangui, a nurse from the Democratic Republic of Congo who led the MSF mobile team of nine nurses, eight nutritional assistants and two drivers.

“Then, the severely malnourished who require urgent medical care will be registered in our programme,” Bitangui said, as anxious mothers sitting under a blazing sun watched his every move.

The nutritional assistants “who have a medical eye” circulated in the crowd, selecting the severe cases.

“Otherwise, they will be pushing and shoving and we could have a stampede,” Bitangui said.

Some in the crowd had gone without food for days.

“I’ve been drinking a lot of water to calm the hunger,” Abdourahmane said.

Niger, among the poorest countries in the world, year after year finds itself unable to adequately feed itself. A locust invasion last year followed by drought worsened conditions. Almost a third of Niger’s population of 11,3-million is in crisis, with its children the most vulnerable.
About 800 000 children under five are suffering from hunger, including 150 000 faced with severe malnutrition.

Repeated United Nations and aid agency pleas to the world to help went unanswered until the problem reached crisis. Massive airlifts of food are expected in the next few days.

An aircraft carrying 44 tonnes of high-energy biscuits and generators left Italy on Thursday for Niger, the UN’s Rome-based World Food Programme (WFP) said.

The WFP added the Ilyushin 76 aircraft will return to Italy on Saturday to be loaded with more biscuits. The total of 70 tonnes of biscuits are enough to feed at least 80 000 people.

From Niger’s capital, a convoy of trucks will carry the biscuits along the 660km desert road to Maradi.

On Friday in Madaroufa, severely malnourished children were being sent home with supplementary food rations for the entire family.

Five children in critical condition were taken to an MSF intensive-care unit at Maradi, a 36km drive north that can take more than an hour on Niger’s poor roads.

Among those in critical condition was six-month-old Mariama Issa, who arrived almost unconscious. A drip was carefully inserted in one of her skeletal arms before she was driven to Maradi.

Maimouna Nafiou waited with her year-old daughter Noura for a follow-up visit.

“I can’t believe the transformation,” Nafiou said of the tiny girl sitting in the sandy courtyard.

“I brought them a bag of bones, and look,” said Nafiou lifting little Noura’s T-shirt. “She’s been on the programme since June 24 and has gone from 4,5kg to 5,6kg.”

For Nigerien staff like nurse Balki Harouna, working six days a week, up to nine hours a day, involvement goes beyond getting a secure job and enough food to feed their families.

“You know, we are giving back to our society and these people who haven’t had any luck,” Harouna said. “Tomorrow we will be reaching to others who are too poor to come to us.”—Sapa-AP

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