More than three children per 10,000 under age five are dying daily from malnutrition reports Sarah Carr, a Canadian nutritionist serving in Niger. According to international standards, under-five mortality rates of 2/10,000 children per day indicates an emergency; 4/10,000 indicates a severe situation.
"The situation is escalating and we aren't even in the peak of the hungry season between harvests yet," says Carr, adding that levels of wasting (acute malnutrition) among children in Maradi and Zinder have reached 13.4 and 13.5 respectively.
World Vision is operating an outpatient therapeutic feeding program in Zinder for up to 5,000 moderately malnourished children under-five without medical complications. Children receive packets of a high-energy peanut supplement called Plumpynut, as well as a ration of millet, cowpeas and oil to take home. Children who are identified as being severely malnourished with medical complications are evacuated to a hospital in Maradi - about four hours away by road.
Carr says some parents are reluctant to seek help for their children because "they just don't have time for their kids to be sick right now" during the critical planting season.
"Mothers here have as many as nine children. Who's going to look after the others if she takes one sick child to the hospital? Who will do the field work?" she says.
But Carr says "it's a certain death sentence" if severely malnourished children don't receive medical care. They are especially vulnerable to malaria which can reach a prevalence of 50 percent during the rainy season. World Vision is distributing treated mosquito nets in project communities.
The food security situation will probably worsen before crops are harvested in late October, says Carr. "Farmers are working hard planting right now and they're expending a lot of energy but they have little food input."
They don't have enough food for themselves or their children. Prices for millet - a diet staple here - have more than tripled since last year. A 100 kg bag of millet now sells for US$60 - far beyond the reach of most Nigeriens who live on a dollar a day when times are good.
Almost one-quarter of Niger's 12 million people are at risk, including 800,000 children.
World Vision Niger is responding to the crisis by stocking cereal banks, operating a nutritional program and addressing food security. The program has received about US$1.3 million through government grants and private funding, but an estimated US$4 million is still needed to expand nutrition programs, construct and stock cereal banks, and develop economic and agricultural recovery programs.
International governments are slowly responding to a UN appeal for US$16 million to aid Niger. However, getting food into Niger is a major challenge even if funding is available. Neighbouring countries (Mali, Nigeria) are experiencing their own food shortages and are reluctant to sell their stock. The World Food Programme plans to import 23,000 metric tons to be distributed from end of July to September. This offers little hope to children who are hungry right now.
"Young boys are banging on my door at night begging for food," says Carr. "That's something I've never seen in Africa, even here in Niger where people are so poor."
Report from Karen Homer - Communications Manager, World Vision West Africa Region