WHO update on the health situation in Niger, 2 Aug 2005

The current crisis

Niger is a vast landlocked country in central Africa, more than twice the size of France, with a population of 11.9 million. Niger is ranked as the second-poorest country in the world.

More than a third of the population, about 3.5 million people, are experiencing a dramatic crisis as a result of food shortages in 2005. The deficit is heavily concentrated in the poorest, most food insecure and vulnerable departments in the agro-pastoral regions of Tillabéri, Tahoua, Maradi, Diffa, Agadez, Zinder and Gaya.

It is estimated that 800,000 under-five children are suffering from hunger, with at least 60,000 moderately malnourished and 32,000 severely malnourished. Similar, but less severe, threats are reported to be affecting people in Mali and Mauritania.

Most families in Niger support themselves through subsistence farming and typically grow enough food to cover the interval from one harvest to the next. Even in the best agricultural years, food insecurity is widespread. 40% of children are underweight.

In Niger, life expectancy for men and women is 46 years. The health system is under-resourced: more than half of the population restricted access to health services and less than half of the people have access to potable water.

Weak bodies cannot fight against common diseases

People who are malnourished won't necessarily die from starvation, but because their immune systems are weak, they are at much greater risk of suffering from communicable diseases. The people particularly at risk in Niger are suffering energy-protein malnutrition (resulting from shortages of food in the homes) and micronutrient deficiency. The incidence of many communicable diseases will increase in the next few weeks as a result of the onset of rains and - where people have moved in search of food - overcrowding, shortages of water and poor hygiene. According to the WHO, specific disease risks include malaria and diarrhoea, cholera, hepatitis and measles.

Cholera has already stricken the country. Today, the Ministry of Health, Niger reported a total of 49 cases and 5 deaths (case fatality rate 10.2%). Cases have occurred in Bouza health district, Tahoua region (North-east of the capital, Niamey). Vibrio cholerae O1 has been laboratory confirmed.

What is WHO doing?

The WHO office in Niamey, the regional office for Africa and WHO headquarters are working together with partners to help solve this crisis. A WHO technical team is currently visiting Niger to further assess the health situation.

WHO is focusing on promoting best practice for rehabilitation of malnourished children under five and for pregnant and lactating women through therapeutic (for the severely malnourished ) and supplementary feeding.

The Organization has also identified the risk of water-borne and other communicable diseases in affected areas, and has proposed ways in which WHO could improve health service capacity to tackle them. WHO will help to establish a disease surveillance system, critical to determine where disease is occurring and what the best actions are to stop any outbreaks.

WHO is helping the Ministry of Health to respond with up to date assessments of the health and nutrition situation of the population, of the health risks they face, and the degree to which health priorities are being met. WHO will help to coordinate health action - both in terms of services provided, and geographical distribution in relation to need.

The crisis in Niger - the history

In mid-June 2004, UN Agencies and Programmes (in particular WFP, FAO, UNDP, WHO and UNICEF) and other partners were closely monitoring the situation and supporting Government efforts to evaluate and mitigate the locust invasion and food insecurity in the country.

In 25 November 2004, the Government issued an urgent appeal for 78,100 metric tonnes of emergency food aid but no pledge was received.

In May 2005 the United Nations $16 million Flash Appeal was launched covering the period May-September 2005: WHO appealed for $400,000 for nutritional assessment and interventions, strengthening of surveillance and control of water born diseases and supporting health services. WHO has received no contribution in response to this appeal. In a few days, the United Nations will revise their Flash Appeal, WHO will ask for more than the doubling of the amount of money the Organization needs to urgently respond to the needs.

In June and July 2005, WFP and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) assessments indicated alarming food insecurity and rise of severe malnutrition. The number of WFP food beneficiaries tripled to 1.2 million.