Three children played happily on Thursday in the courtyard of an orphanage in the southern Niger town of Maradi, as their beaming mothers looked on.
Only a month ago, the three were at death’s door as a result of severe malnutrition in a region where hundreds of thousands are threatened by food shortages.
But while they appear to have fully recovered in the wake of emergency treatment, doctors warned that many other children might be affected for the rest of their lives.
Since June, Dr Guissa Mahamane of the Africa Muslim Agency that runs the orphanage and his colleagues have been feeding about 500 malnourished children a day with milk and a vitamin-enriched porridge based on rice or millet.
”We have no experience in the nutritional field, but the results are encouraging,” he said, while adding, ”If I encounter a case of severe malnutrition, I refer it to the specialists.”
Dr Mego Terzian of Médécins sans Frontières (MSF) said the number of such cases admitted to the agency’s intensive-treatment centres in Niger has leapt by nearly 30% in a week.
”Last week, we admitted 1 283 children suffering from acute malnutrition to our five centres, against 990 the week before,” he said.
Severe lack of food weakens the victim’s resistance to disease, and life expectancy is reduced, he said.
In Niger, a malnourished child is particularly vulnerable to septicaemia, lung problems and malaria, which affects 800 000 people a year in the country.
Terzian said all three are found to be already present in many children brought to the MSF feeding centres, with the prospect of neurological and other illnesses in later life.
French Red Cross nutritionist Dr Guy Zimmermann said ”long-term malnutrition restricts growth in children and makes them susceptible to all forms of infection”.
Children in the last stages of malnutrition require highly specialised treatment if their lives are to be saved, he added.
As well as being gradually restored to health with proper feeding, their various infections must also be cured.
”The child cannot even swallow water, and must be fed by drip,” Zimmermann said.
Even when apparently saved, ”there are almost inevitably after-effects which can damage the brain and have psychological consequences”.
According to MSF, 856 children have pulled through in its centres, but the death rate is hovering at about 5%.
There are no official figures for the number of dead in Niger, but the United Nations reckons that 3,5-million of the country’s 12-million inhabitants are threatened by famine.
About 800 000 children are concerned, of whom 150 000 are suffering from serious malnutrition.
The international community was slow to react and while food aid is beginning to arrive in the country, it is in inadequate amounts and not always in the form that starving families need.
The deputy head of the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), Rima Saleh, is due in Maradi on Friday, Unicef regional official Kent Page said.
Accompanied by Canadian Aid Minister Aileen Carroll, she will visit the Unicef-aided MSF feeding centre in Maradi and donate 10 tonnes of millet, the staple food, to the village of Guidan Dobi, 35km away, where many children are suffering from lack of food. — Sapa-AFP