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In the Niger, quality care saves a Malian refugee baby's life

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The long, perilous journey out of Mali exhausted Mariama and all of her children. But for little Ouda, 12 months old, it would prove unbearable.

27 February 2013: UNICEF correspondent Shushan Mebrahtu reports on how UNICEF is helping Malian refugees in the Niger.

By Shushan Mebrahtu

MANGAIZE, Niger, 12 March 2013 – Mariama Sadou and her three young children fled Mali four weeks ago to escape the violence. For 11 days, they travelled under the scorching sun by foot and by donkey until they crossed into the Niger.

The family settled in Mangaize camp, one of three official camps among the six sites in the Niger hosting 50,000 Malian refugees.

The long, perilous journey out of Mali exhausted Ms. Sadou and all of her children. But for little Ouda, 12 months old, it proved unbearable.

Screened for malnutrition

“It has been 25 days since Ouda is sick,” said a woman speaking on behalf of Ms. Sadou. “When the mother tried to feed Ouda, she keeps vomiting – she has fever every night.”

“On the road, they ate only once a day, some dough made of millet and oil,” added the woman, a refugee and resident of Mangaize, herself.

Ms. Sadou brought Ouda to a UNICEF-supported feeding centre in the camp, where all children are screened for malnutrition and given nutritious meals three times a day. Nutritional screening takes place once a month in all three feeding centres in the camp.

But Ouda refused to eat.

A nutritionist measured the circumference of Ouda’s left arm. Ouda was suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

She was immediately referred to the health centre, close to the camp, for further diagnosis and treatment.

Screened for health

At the health centre, a nurse evaluated Ouda’s weight-to-height ratio. The baby weighed only 5.8 kg. A child of her height should normally weigh 7.1 kg. An appetite test confirmed that Ouda could not eat on her own.

She was also suffering from diarrhoea.

“She is severely malnourished with medical complications,” said Chief of the Mangaize health centre Dr. Issufou Boubay. “She needs to be referred for intensive medical care. Treating her with just therapeutic food is not going to cure her.” Ouda is not the only child suffering from severe acute malnutrition in the camp. “Amongst the 101 severely malnourished children we detected during the course of January, 47 were refugees,” noted Dr. Boubay.

Referred to rehabilitation centre

Most of the refugee children suffering from malnutrition receive outpatient care through weekly visits to the health centre for rations of therapeutic food and to monitor their weight and health.

But children with medical complications, like Ouda, are referred to an intensive nutritional rehabilitation centre (CRENI) to be hospitalized.

The CRENI where Ouda would go is 45 km from Mangaize camp. Ms. Sadou packed a change of clothes, a plastic mat and a blanket. Mother and daughter travelled by ambulance for one hour to the Ouallam District hospital. Medical staff admitted Ouda to the intensive Phase I nutrition rehabilitation ward to follow her treatment.

Chief of the Ouallam District hospital CRENI Dr. Himon Boubakar was optimistic about Ouda’s situation. “She will recover, God willing, within a short time,” he said.

As it turns out, Ouda’s situation is improving, and she has begun the transition phase of the treatment. She is being given ready-to-use therapeutic food and has continued to gain weight.

Many refugee children like Ouda are receiving urgent healthcare in their host country, the Niger, a country with one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. This year alone, the Niger expects nearly 290,000 severe acute malnutrition caseloads amongst children under 5 years old.

In Mangaize camp, UNICEF and its partners are providing wet feeding with daily rations of nutritious hot meals to children, supporting regular nutritional screening activities and referral for treatment, as well as holding awareness-raising sessions for mothers on appropriate child feeding and good hygiene practices.

UNICEF is strengthening the capacity of health centres and CRENIs throughout the Niger to prevent and treat malnutrition among children and to cope with the increasing number of admissions from refugee camps.

But more resources are needed to provide medical supplies, drugs, therapeutic food and other life-saving supplies. UNICEF is calling on the international community to intensify efforts and mobilize all means necessary to save the lives of vulnerable children in the Niger.