Severe child malnutrition hits Nigeria's far north

By Estelle Shirbon
ABUJA, July 24 (Reuters) - Hundreds of children in northern Nigeria, close to the Niger border, are suffering from severe malnutrition brought on by measles, drought and rising food prices, relief organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said.

MSF, or Doctors Without Borders, is feeding more than 600 children under the age of 5 at an emergency centre set up three weeks ago in the far northern state of Katsina. Dozens more badly malnourished children are arriving every day.

Some of the children are in a life-threatening condition.

Katsina borders Niger, where millions of people are starving after drought and a plague of locusts devastated crops.

Unlike Niger, which has few resources, Nigeria exports billions of dollars' worth of crude oil each year. But Nigeria's population of 140 million, by far the biggest in Africa, means income per capita is among the lowest in the world.

The drought that hurt Niger's cereal production also affected 2004 harvests in the northern belt of Nigeria, resulting in low food stocks and rising prices. An outbreak of measles compounded the problem.

"It's comparable to what is going on in Niger ... but it is not possible for us to draw a link at this stage, we are still collecting data," said Fabien Schneider, head of the French section of MSF in Nigeria, which is running the centre.

MSF first became aware there was a problem in Katsina when badly malnourished Nigerian children started arriving at a feeding centre across the border in Niger.

"Measles hit extremely hard in Katsina this year and a great many children were affected," Schneider said.

"This appears to have aggravated the situation in an area where there is chronic malnutrition," he said.

People ill with measles, a recurrent disease in many parts of Nigeria, require a lot of protein to help their organisms fight the disease and children whose diets contain little protein can quickly become malnourished.

The staple foods in northern Katsina are millet and sorghum. Most diets are high in carbohydrates but low in protein and fat.

Nigeria has routine immunisation programmes against measles, but the government, the U.N. children's fund UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are planning a large-scale vaccination campaign to boost immunisation across the country.

The campaign starts on Dec. 6, ahead of the high transmission season, in three northern zones including Katsina, a WHO spokeswoman said.

Schneider said the situation in Katsina was heterogeneous, making it hard to analyse the roots of the problem.

"You can go to one village and you'll find the children are plump and well, and in another one a few hundred metres away you'll find the children are malnourished," he said.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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