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The Malnutrition Threat In The Sahel

How is the current hunger crisis in the Sahel impacting levels of malnutrition in the region? And what is WFP doing in response? In this Q&A, our West Africa team of nutritionists explain what's happening and what we're doing.

Generally speaking, what is the nutrition situation  in the Sahel region?

Recurrent food crises over the past decade have coincided with periods of widespread malnutrition among children. It's a region where, even in non-emergency years, diets are undiversified and children often don’t receive necessary nutrients.

And what's happening now?

Poor rains during last year’s growing season have led to a bad harvest. Millions of people risk of going hungry before the next harvest in September. The bad harvest has pushed up the price of food and prices are expected to remain high, at least until the autumn harvest. This further limits families’ ability to buy nutritious foods . As a coping strategy in these difficult times, families reduce the quantity and quality of food they eat. This particularly affects young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers, who have special nutritional needs. A peak in overall malnutrition rates is likely.

map of main areas affected by drought in the sahelWhat are those nutrition rates like now?

All types of malnutrition are extremely high across the Sahel. The prevalence of wasting, a sign of recent inadequate food intake, regularly exceeds 10% (considered a “serious” situation) year-round. There arepeaks each year during the annual 'hunger season', the period leading up to the harvest when food stocks run low.

Statistics from recent years show that periods of high food insecurity have led to significant increases in wasting. In Niger, Chad and Mauritania, for example, data shows peaks in malnutrition levels and associated mortality coinciding with food crises. So it is expected that levels of wasting and mortality will rise significantly this year if adequate measures are not taken.

What is WFP’s regional nutrition response strategy?

WFP is prioritizing the delivery of the right foods at the right time to especially vulnerable groups: young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers. These are the people who face the highest risk of mortality linked to malnutrition. Implementing such nutrition operations immediately—and not after negative impacts and consequences are experienced—can help ensure that malnutrition is actually prevented in time.

So what measures are being taken?
To prevent a peak in malnutrition among children under 2 years, pregnant women and lactating mothers, WFP will provide a nutritious ration to those in risk areas. We will be supplementing their normal diet during the 6 months of the hunger season. We will also implement food-based operations to treat wasting in children under 5 years, pregnant women and lactating mothers. This treatment helps prevent children from slipping into severe malnutrition, which can lead to death.
young boy sitting on dried soil It is important to limit the prevalence of malnutrition through preventive action and not wait for children to become malnourished. If they're malnourished, they face an increased risk of disease and death. Prevention is also important because, in regions across the Sahel, the capacity for treating malnutrition is limited. People have to travel long distances to find medical help, so it's much better to stop people falling into this condition in the first place .

How many people does WFP aim to reach in 2012 through its nutrition activities?

WFP plans to reach 3.5 million children and women in 2012 through nutrition activities in the 7 affected countries. In Niger and Chad, where populations are most affected and needs are the greatest, WFP plans to reach 1.7 million children under 5 years and half a million women. While plans are based on the best available estimates, WFP is working closely with national governments and UN partners to ensure that nutrition assistance reflects the rapidly evolving situation in each country.

WFP has ongoing nutrition programmes in all 7 countries affected by the crisis and is scaling up action on the basis of the latest nutritional information.

Where is the focus on prevention and where is it on treatment?

WFP will provide food-based treatment of wasting in regions where this condition is above 10 percent (the threshold for it to be considered to be at “serious” levels). In areas where wasting is above 15% (considered a “critical” level), WFP will carry out programmes to prevent malnutrition. In the first case, we will target children under 5 years, pregnant women and nursing mothers. In the second (prevention) we will target children under 2 years, pregnant women and mothers who are breast-feeding. (This is all in accordance with the internationally accepted nutrition intervention guidelines set by the World Health Organization).

Since a significant deterioration in the food security situation is expected leading up to the harvest in autumn, WFP will also extend operations to prevent malnutrition in certainareas where wasting has not reached 15 percent, but where severe food insecurity and /or soaring food prices are detected.

What nutrition products is WFP using?

three canisters of plumpy'supWFP is using the most appropriate nutrition products with proven effectiveness. To treat and prevent wasting in emergency contexts, WFP delivers Ready-to-use Foods (RUSF), such as Plumpy’Sup® and Plumpy’Doz®, which are best suited to meet the nutrition needs of children under 5 years. WFP also provides Fortified Blended Flours such as Supercerealplus, which are rich in energy, protein and micronutrients.

Who is WFP working with on these nutritionally-focused programmes?

Our response is developed in partnership with national governments and UN partners, and operations will be carried out with the vital support of local and international NGOs. WFP is working through what are called 'Nutrition Clusters'.

What donations has WFP received and what is the current funding shortfall?

WFP welcomes the USD 40 million (EUR 30 million) donation from the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO) which will cover operations to supplement diets in the vulnerable groups in Niger and Chad, and partially cover such operations in Mali and Northern Cameroon. Additional contributions are being urgently sought to ensure timely programming.