BAMAKO, Mali (May 29, 2012) — You wouldn’t think it to look at her, but Bintou is 18 months old. She is very small for her age because her little body has not had enough nutrients to grow normally.
Bintou is struggling to survive in Mali, where an acute shortage of food is affecting not just her, but many thousands like her. Her mother moved to Bamako, leaving Bintou with her grandmother, named Bintou Traoré.
A prolonged drought has devastated the already dry Sahel region of Africa. Crops have failed, and the lean season—when food from the last harvest has run out—has arrived early. Food is available in the markets, but the prices are too high for the very poor, like Bintou’s grandmother.
When Traoré took Bintou to Mopti Hospital, she was so frail she could barely lift her head.
“When we got here, Bintou couldn’t even sit up,” said Traoré. “She couldn’t stop coughing and had constant diarrhea.”
At the hospital, too weak to eat, Bintou was diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition, a deadly condition. She was immediately started on a course of UNICEF-provided therapeutic milk, which she received eight times per day.
Bintou is not alone. There are thousands of children like her all over Mali. The fields are bare. The harvests, which were sparse in the first place, have run out. Bintou lives near Mopti, on the border of the tumultuous region to the north, where conflict on the ground has caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. And with the skyrocketing food prices, it is easy to see how the ability of poor families to cope is being stretched past the breaking point.
According to UNICEF, over 3.5 million people in Mali will require food assistance this year, half of them children. Of these, an estimated 175,000 to 220,000 children under five years old are at risk of severe acute malnutrition. Country-wide, the prevalence of global acute malnutrition among children stands at 10%, exceeding the UN’s alert levels.
Children are especially vulnerable in this crisis, succumbing more quickly to malnutrition, as they are less able to cope with lack of food. And a malnourished child is much more prone to other illnesses, which further weaken the body and deplete its strength. It becomes a downward spiral that all too often ends tragically.
UNICEF is working to prevent this, helping the health ministry train and equip community health workers like Belko Traoré (who is not related to Bintou’s family).
He goes from village to village evaluating children for malnutrition, educating parents about how to recognize the signs of malnutrition, and teaching them that early intervention will save their children’s lives.
“We are the link between the population and the health center,” Traoré said. “People who are confronted with malnutrition often think that it will cost a lot of money to bring their children to the health center so we encourage them to do it.”
For little Bintou, the signs are positive.
“When she first came here, she couldn’t sit, couldn’t hold her head straight,” her grandmother said. “But today, thank God, she can sit properly and hold up her head and she wants to eat.”