TAHOUA, 9 June (IRIN) - In these dusty scorching reaches of southern Niger, children are weak and underfed and risk dying in the next four months when malaria and diarrhoea reach their peak, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), the international medical charity, warned on Thursday.
With more than one out of four of Niger's 12 million people facing a shortage of food this year, MSF on 3 June opened a new therapeutic feeding centre in Tahoua, Niger's fourth biggest town.
"In the five days since we opened, more than 100 children have been taken into care in the centre," Mohammed Mansour, a nutritional assistant, told IRIN.
Around 3.6 million people are facing hunger ahead of harvests next October because supplies have run out due to poor rains in 2004 combined with swarms of locusts that devoured crops.
MSF estimates that one child in five is suffering from global acute malnutrition - meaning they are between 20 to 30 percent smaller than average - in villages in the provinces of Tahoua and Maradi. So it has opened new feeding centres, including 27 mobile units.
Thursday alone, 14 children had been admitted into the Tahoua centre, a series of large white MSF tents where the sick are treated on floor mats and crowds of women and children mill about outside under the baking sun.
In the tented intensive care centre, where bone-thin babies on intravenous drips lie listlessly by their mother's side, doctor Ndjiikam Alexandre said one child died the night before. A five-month infant suffering from acute malnutrition is so dehydrated he is unlikely to survive, the doctor added.
The centre currently has 39 children in care who are on the mend and about to be sent home. The children treated at the MSF centres receive not only therapeutic food but get a weekly family food ration.
"We believe people affected by the food crisis need free food immediately," Emmanuel Drouhin, head of the MSF programmes at its Paris office, told IRIN.
Drouhin said that MSF was attending only to children suffering from severe malnutrition - more than 30 percent below average - while those suffering from moderate malnutrition - between 20 and 30 percent below average - had no access to medical treatment.
"The problem is that the moderately malnourished are not eating enough and if they get diarrhoea they too will become severely malnourished and mortality is high."
In a statement released on Thursday, MSF said that unless food was handed out in the villages most affected by hunger, children would die.
Since the beginning of the year, MSF staff had treated 6,000 children suffering from severe malnutrition in the area, double the number treated in the same period last year.
According to an April survey, mortality rates in the north of the Maradi and Tahoua regions were already too high at the time - at 2.2 and 2.4 deaths per 10,000 people/day, whereas the emergency mortality threshold for children under five is 2/10000.
"Four months away from the next harvest, all the indicators are already in the red," MSF said. "Seasonal malaria and diarrhoea, which peaks between June and October, combined with malnutrition could be fatal for these children that are already weak."
People were too poor this year to pay for food and care.
"To avoid further increase in child mortality rates in the coming weeks," the statement said, "MSF calls for free food distributions."
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