July 30, 2005

Disease tightens grip on Niger’s starving children

By Matthew Green

TAHOUA, Niger (Reuters) - Malaria and diarrhoea pose a
growing threat to Niger's starving children, aid workers said
on Saturday, some infants looking desperately weak as they lay
in an emergency feeding tent in the northern town of Tahoua.

Slumped with their heads in their mothers' laps or wailing
with pain, tiny children brought into the tent look close to
death even before illness takes hold of their skeletal frames.

Doctors administer oxygen to some while mothers try to coax
their listless sons and daughters into eating liquid food from
plastic spoons, but most of the dozen or so infants in the ward
are simply sprawled on beds, fighting illnesses.

Recent rains have brought hope of a good harvest -- but may
also trigger deadly outbreaks of disease by providing breeding
grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes, aid workers said.

"These children are very, very vulnerable. If they're
already malnourished and they get malaria they need expert
medical and nutritional help straight away," said Johanne
Sekkenes, mission head for medical organization Medecins Sans
Frontieres (MSF) (Doctors without Borders) in Niger.

MSF runs a series of feeding centers in Niger, where U.N.
officials say 3.6 million people are facing severe food
shortages after drought and locusts destroyed last year's crop,
but it does not have the resources to reach all the needy.

U.N. relief officials estimate there are around 150,000
children in the West African country who are severely
malnourished, many of whom could die without medical help,
though nationwide data are sketchy.

MSF says it has treated some 15,000 severely malnourished
children so far this year, saving about 95 percent of them, but
it is impossible to tell how many more may be dying in remote
villages in the vast country on the edge of Sahara.


Reduced to just loose skin and bones by hunger, the tiniest
victims of the food crisis are so weakened by a lack of
minerals and vitamins they are easy prey for respiratory
infections like pneumonia or diseases like septic shock.

Rains that have begun falling over the past few weeks have
turned previously parched fields into vistas of sprouting green
millet shoots ahead of the October harvest, but mosquitoes
breed in the puddles, bringing deadly malaria.

The rain can also wash into wells through villages that
often lack sanitation, raising the risk of contaminating water
supplies and spreading potentially fatal diarrhoea.

"Her neck swelled up, then she started coughing," said
Zahira Hussein, about 25, nursing her 13-month-old daughter in
the feeding center in Tahoua, about 550 km (340 miles)
northeast of the capital Niamey.

"Before she couldn't even sleep, now she's doing better,"
she said in the ward, where soft moans and cries from other
starved children provided a constant backdrop.

Aid efforts for Niger have quickened in the past few weeks,
but MSF doctors say a slow response by donor countries, relief
agencies and the United Nations has allowed the crisis to
spiral to emergency levels.

MSF, which is spending roughly 12 million euros on its
emergency operation in Niger this year, has drawn most of the
money from excess pledges for the Asian Tsunami, after asking
donating individuals whether they approved of a switch.

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy was due to
visit Tahoua later on Saturday to deliver medical supplies to a
clinic in the former French colony, where even in good years
one in four children dies before reaching the age of five.