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End of lean season presents no end to child suffering in Sahel

As harvests roll in across West Africa’s Sahel, WFP has warned that although households are restocking their granaries, millions of children across the region remain threatened by malnutrition.

In a very real sense, acute malnutrition is only the tip of the iceberg
The highest child mortality rates in the world are found in the Sahel, and over half those deaths are attributable to malnutrition.

At least 1.4 million children under five in the Sahel suffer from acute malnutrition – 37 percent of all under fives are chronically malnourished.

Battle

A total of US$47 million is currently required to ensure that WFP nutrition-oriented operations in Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso are rolled out through 2007.

“We have to break the bondage of malnutrition in the Sahel,” said WFP Senior Deputy Executive Director Jean-Jacques Graisse, who is currently in Dakar.

“Malnutrition does not simply disappear with the arrival of the new harvest and return the next lean season. WFP and our partners are fighting a battle that cannot be won over a few weeks or months. It will take years, and require the sustained support of the international community,” Graisse said.

Regional approach

Across the Sahel, WFP has forged stronger partnerships with governments, UNICEF and a wide range of NGOs to build a comprehensive regional approach to drive back malnutrition.

Niger, Mali, Mauritania now all have large nutrition-centred operations in place, and Burkina Faso will follow shortly.

Recent donations by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (US$5.5 million) and United States (US$5 million) to WFP operations in Niger, Mali and Mauritania have eased the most immediate funding concerns, but by their nature these operations need ongoing support to ensure that prevention of malnutrition has a chance to succeed.

This year, Niger is an example of what can be achieved in the fight against malnutrition through effective partnership and a well-funded operation.

Improvement - but still serious

Nearly 300,000 children were treated at over 900 feeding centres across the country and acute malnutrition (wasting) levels have dropped to 11.8 percent from a high of 17.3 percent in 2000.

Despite the improvement, this is still considered ‘serious’ by the World Health Organization.

Over 350,000 children have benefited from a blanket feeding programme in Tahoua, Zinder and Maradi regions where malnutrition rates are the highest. Gradually, real progress is being made.

Elsewhere, WFP has adapted its programmes in order to ensure nutrition needs are met as a matter of priority.

Acute malnutrition

In Mali, acute malnutrition rates are 11.2 percent and in some areas even higher.

WFP is providing micro-nutrient fortified food to feeding centres to prevent 175,000 children falling into severe stages of malnutrition.

Another US$15 million is required to see the operation through to the end of 2007.

In Mauritania – where acute malnutrition rates are 12 percent – WFP has helped expand the number of community feeding centres to more than 650, with over 32,000 moderately malnourished children receiving fortified food on a daily basis.

Food supply breaks

WFP has battled against looming breaks in food supplies throughout the lean season and a further US$12.5 million is still required to ensure deliveries next year.

A nutrition-centred operation will very shortly be rolled out in Burkina Faso, where a recent joint Government and UN evaluation confirmed the need to reinforce and expand nutrition operations in response to what is already a precarious situation.

Under the new operation, over 475,000 children and their mothers will receive fortified food rations at a cost of US$15 million.

Tip of the iceberg

In a very real sense, acute malnutrition is only the tip of the iceberg.

Chronic malnourishment or stunting affects many millions more across the Sahel and although not immediately life-threatening, it robs children of physical and intellectual development into adulthood.

The causes of malnutrition are complex. Although there is a direct link to food intake, other factors such as disease, availability of healthcare and clean water, hygiene and childcare practices all play a role.

Commitment

A steady food supply will not necessarily mean an escape from the poverty which produces malnutrition, but it is an important step in the right direction.

Following a good end to the rainy season in the Sahel, forecasts for cereal production for this year are optimistic, but there continue to be localised crop failures that contribute directly to high rates of malnutrition.

“There is no vaccine against malnutrition – what we need is a commitment to rolling it back once and for all. It will take time, but we must do it. Malnutrition means that generation after generation is currently seeing their human potential compromised,” said Graisse.