Mouniata Niampa is sitting on a ground mat clutching her baby of 10 months, Yasser, in her arms. Her exhausted face is among those of many. Tiny Yasser is not crying, he is too weak to cry.
We are at a renourishment centre near the town of Titao in the north of Burkina Faso. To reach the centre, Mouniata rode her bicycle for 3 hours with her baby on her back, crossing arid and dusty terrain under a burning sun.
Yasser is very ill. He is the youngest of six children and is suffering from malnutrition. He has become weaker in the past few weeks because of a bout of malaria. His mother has come to the centre for help. It is run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) which every month receives several thousand mothers and their children for the screening and treatment of malnutrition. Mouniata will leave the centre a few hours later with therapeutic food rations, medication for her baby's malaria and advice to ensure the rapid recover of her child. She will return in a week so that the doctor can follow Yasser's progress and provide more food rations.
« The children are checked by a nurse and by a doctor », explains Cécile, an MSF nurse. « We test systematically for malaria as more than 90% of children here are infected. We evaluate the level of malnutrition in a child by measuring the circumference of its arm and its weight. If malnutrition is detected, we immediately provide the mother with ready-to-eat therapeutic food which enables a child to regain weight very rapidly. It also helps protect against illnesses such as malaria and respiratory infections».
For the past few years, ready-to-eat high energy food supplements have been available. These are made from peanut paste, milk and vitamins and have revolutionized the treatment of malnutrition. Mothers are able to take the doses back to their homes allowing them to treat their child while staying with their families, looking after their other children, and working in their fields and homes. The rations need no preparation thereby avoiding the risk of contamination. They also have a pleasant taste, which is essential for gravely sick children who have lost their appetites and even their will to eat. The treatment normally lasts one month.
«The most severe cases of malnutrition are sent to the Health Centre and the children are given a transfusion and are closely watched over by the doctors and nurses. » adds Céline. Without this care, a child's life could be at risk.
This treatment is free of charge and the costs are absorbed by MSF and the other organizations present in the most seriously affected zones – with technical and financial support provided by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department (ECHO).
Burkina Faso, like other countries in the Sahel region, suffers from an alarming level of malnutrition among children under five years of age. It is estimated that 300 000 children die every year in the Sahel from chronic and severe malnutrition. In this same region, many children under five suffer from more or less severe malnutrition and are at risk of weakening their immune systems and irreversibly stunting their growth. Chronic malnutrition systematically weakens the capacity of a country to develop and thrive.
The dire poverty of the affected populations is one of the factors which partly explain the high levels of malnutrition. The rural populations of the Sahel experience recurrent periods of food shortages which significantly increase the level of malnutrition in very young children. Free healthcare is essential to ensuring that families travel to the centres to receive the vital treatment to save the lives of their children.
For example, the NGO Terre des Hommes (TDH), supported by the Commission, introduced free healthcare in two districts - Tougan and Séguénéga in October 2008. « Within the first week, the number of visitors to the health centre in Kossouka rose from 20 to 500 », say the Head Nurse. «Our personnel are overwhelmed but it's worth it as we are really making a difference. »
Since 2005, the European Commission Humanitarian Aid department has financed projects to reduce the levels of malnutrition in the Sahel region. The projects have made possible the treatment of thousands of chronically malnourished children and have facilitated the access of the poorest to health services. They have also enabled humanitarian organisations as well as local communities to better understand, anticipate and manage future external shocks.
This ongoing assistance – more than €60 million since 2005 – is responsible for treating numerous hungry children and in turn has resulted in the reduction of malnutrition and infant mortality.
The Commission ensures that the integration of these projects into the national health systems will allow all Sahel countries to attain the necessary competences to assume responsibility for its children, today and in the future.
However, the European Commission and its partners in the field have given themselves an ultimate goal – to raise awareness among the general public, Governments and donors of development aid that malnutrition must be the centre of concern and be included in long term development goals. Without this collective realization, the countries affected by malnutrition will never aspire to growth or attain sustainable development.
Information Officer - ECHO Western Africa