By Rachel Bonham Carter
NEW YORK, 27 July 2005 - Hunger and malnutrition are threatening the lives of 3.6 million people in Niger - among them 800,000 children under five. UNICEF and its partners have made an emergency appeal for $12 million as famine threatens to spread through the region.
"Out of these 800,000 children, 250,000 are already malnourished, and [another] 30,000 of them are severely malnourished," said UNICEF Programme Officer Enrico Leonardi.
"The problem is facing Niger now. Unfortunately, we risk seeing it in neighbouring countries, like Nigeria, Mali, and Burkina Faso. We need to tackle this problem as soon as possible, before the situation of these countries deteriorates to become like Niger."
At UNICEF-supported therapeutic feeding centres, admissions are rising exponentially. So far, UNICEF has trained 80 health workers to treat severely malnourished children and has provided therapeutic materials, equipment and food to 15 nutrition centres around Niger. UNIMIX - a special food for malnourished children - and 600 metric tons of cereals will be distributed.
Help needed now
UNICEF Representative in Niger Aboudu Adjibade said the situation could have been avoided if there had been an adequate response to the drought and locust infestation which hit the country's crops during the 2004 growing season.
"It's a great pity to see many, many children malnourished," said Mr. Adjibade. "This was a predictable situation. Unfortunately, we didn't get enough attention for our appeal, and we didn't get enough resources to deal with it."
Mr. Adjibade expressed hope that the international community would now react very positively to the urgent needs of the situation. "We will take the opportunity to save the maximum number of lives we can," he said.
UNICEF is asking for donations of $12 million between now and the end of December to tackle the crisis. The money will be used to care for the 280,000 malnourished children in Niger, and to continue working with partners to build up coping capacity in the country and monitor developments.
UNICEF offices in the neighbouring countries of Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania are keeping tabs on the situation, to help prevent the Niger crisis from repeating itself elsewhere in the region.