February 11, 2006

Niger helps 15,000 malnourished children

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger, where nearly one in three people went hungry last year after drought and locusts hit rural areas, launched a program on Saturday to help 15,200 acutely malnourished children in the capital Niamey.

The program, supported by UN Children's Fund UNICEF, aims to feed and provide medical help to malnourished children as well as educating their communities, public health ministry spokesman Mamane Issaka said.

"This malnutrition is not solely the result of a shortage of food; it is also linked to practices and behaviors damaging to the health of mother and child," Issaka said.

The landlocked West African nation is one of the poorest on earth and ranked bottom of the 177 countries in the 2005 UN Human Development Index.

UNICEF representative Karimou Aboudou said it was unacceptable that 55 percent of deaths in children under 5 years old were linked to malnutrition.

In 2005 an estimated 3.6 million of Niger's 12 million people went short of food including 800,000 children who suffered from malnutrition in one of Africa's worst hunger crises of recent years.

Most of those affected were in northern rural areas stretching into the Sahara desert, where aid workers fear 1.8 million people could again go hungry this season.

Efforts to help those affected by hunger became mired in controversy last year after Niger's health minister accused aid agencies of exaggerating the threat of more severe food shortages in an attempt to boost their income from donors.