Malnutrition Is Ravaging Niger’s Children

Michael Wines – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
Published: August 5, 2005
ELKOKIYA, Niger, Aug. 3 – At sunset Wednesday, in an unmarked grave in a cemetery rimmed by millet fields, the men of this mud-walled village buried Baby Boy Saminou, the latest casualty of the hunger ravaging 3.6 million farmers and herders in this destitute nation.
At Maradi, infants, some near death, and their mothers await aid provided by Doctors Without Borders. Some experts blame primitive farming and health care for the high death rate among children.
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Michael Kamber/Polaris, for NYT
After Baby Boy Saminou, 16 months old, died of malnutrition at Maradi, a hospital worker lifted his body from the back of Mariama, his mother.
At 16 months, he was little bigger than some newborns, with the matchstick limbs and skeletal ribs of the severely malnourished. He had died three hours earlier in the intensive care unit of a field hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, where 30 others like him still lie with their mothers on metal cots.
One in five is dying – the result, many say, of a belated response by the outside world to a disaster predicted in detail nine months ago.
Niger’s latest hunger problem, like Baby Boy Saminou’s tragedy, is more complex than it first appears. As aid begins to trickle into some of the nearly 4,000 villages across southern Niger that need help – the vanguard of a flood of food brought forth by television images of shrunken babies – the rich world’s response to Niger’s worst nutrition crisis since the 1985 famine is, in fact, proving too late for many.
Unseen on television, however, are the shrunken infants who die all but unnoticed even in so-called normal years. Of each 1,000 children born alive in this, the world’s second-poorest nation, a staggering 262 fail to reach their fifth birthdays.
Five of Baby Boy Saminou’s seven brothers and sisters were among them. The longest-surviving of those who died reached 4 years of age. Asked what killed the last three, Saminou’s father, Saidou Ida, said simply, “Malnutrition.”
International aid officials and charity workers here say that the world’s dilatory reaction to Niger’s woes is hard to excuse. Some of them also say that Niger’s miseries this year are merely a worsened version of its perennial ones – and that until Niger addresses its problems of primitive farming, primitive health care and primitive social conditions, infants will continue to die unnoticed in numbers that dwarf any hunger emergency.
“That is the bigger question that both Niger and the international community, everyone, needs to answer,” Marcus Prior, the West Africa spokesman for the World Food Program, said in an interview in Maradi, the regional city where little Saminou died. “We feel that we’ve tried to raise awareness. But at the same time, this is something that’s a recurring problem.”
That it is a perennial problem, Mr. Prior and others stress, in no way minimizes the urgency of Niger’s current disaster – erratic rainfall and severe food shortages in the agricultural and herding belts where many of Niger’s 11 million to 12 million people live. Together, they are pushing the death rate for small children even higher than Niger’s customary one-in-four level, and killing off the livestock upon which the nation’s nomads depend.
How many people need aid depends on the yardstick used. About 1.2 million of Niger’s 3.6 million rural farmers and herders are described as “extremely vulnerable” to food shortages and in need of food aid, according to an assessment of Niger’s crisis conducted four months ago by the United Nations, major charities and Niger’s government. Of those, about 874,000 urgently need free food, the latest assessment concluded late last month, and that number could rise until the harvest is completed in October.
But that does not mean that nearly 900,000 people will starve; the vast bulk of the hungry will somehow survive. Most of those who do die will be young children. But even among those, most will not die of starvation.
“Children will likely die from malnourishment, but a substantial proportion is probably dying from conditions related to poor water quality, or other non-food-related problems,” FEWS Net, a famine warning service financed with United States assistance, reported late last month.
Much of this disaster was suspected last November, when experts monitoring Niger’s farms found a 220,000-ton shortfall – about 7.5 percent of the normal crop – in the harvest of grains, especially the millet that is the staple of most people’s diet.
For the complete artlice, please click the NYT URL. The photos are quite something, too. hf

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