Starting at the end of 2011, a nutrition crisis gripped the Sahel belt that would ultimately affect part or all of nine countries—Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, the Gambia, Mali, Mauritania, the Niger, Nigeria and Senegal. An entire subregion suffered from poor rainfall and failed harvests.
In the first warning of this crisis in December 2011, UNICEF stated that over 1 million children would need treatment for life-threatening severe acute malnutrition.
A UNICEF progress report released in December says that more than 850,000 children are expected to have received lifesaving treatment for severe acute malnutrition across the nine countries during the course of 2012.
The response has been one of the biggest nutrition responses ever conducted, and a catastrophe has been averted. It does, however, underline that there will always be children who, for a variety of reasons, may not be reached. In the end, greater safety for vulnerable children is secured by better provision of health and other social services.
TINIZAH, Kaedi Region, Mauritania (December 27, 2012) — Humming softly, Fatimatou cradles her healthy, smiling 9-month-old boy Sidiahmed in her lap. It’s been a long time since she could relax and play with him.
Just over a month ago, Sidiahmed was malnourished—and often unresponsive. “He was not moving anymore. He wasn’t playing anymore. He wasn’t breastfeeding. He just didn’t want to eat anymore,” says Fatimatou.
Fatimatou is a single mother. Her husband divorced her just before Sidiahmed was born. In a rural area with a baby on the way—and without a network for support—Fatimatou decided to move to live with her uncle and his family.
The divorce came at a difficult time for families across Mauritania. “Lots of animals died. People didn’t have anything to eat. It was so hard for us,” she says. Without the means to support herself, Fatimatou relied on the kindness of her extended family, even though they, too, were struggling. At the height of this hardship, Fatimatou gave birth to Sidiahmed, her first child.
Some time later, after the worst seemed to be over, Fatimatou began to worry when Sidiahmed became sick. She had her brother take them to the nearby UNICEF-supported CRENAS (outpatient nutrition center).
Relief washed over Fatimatou when she arrived. Energetic nurse Mari had seen hundreds of anguished mothers walk through the doors over the previous few months and immediately tried to reassure them. Despite the traumatic experience of seeing her son so ill, Fatimatou was soon able to calm down.
“I was very happy when I arrived at the CRENAS center,” she says. “Mari told me he was very fragile and very weak. She told me that he would get treatment and that everything would be fine.”
Once he had had treatment, Fatimatou was still worried, as Sidiahmed didn’t move as a baby of his age should. Without adequate nutrition, children’s development suffers, and often they fail to reach vital milestones like smiling, crawling and walking.
Thankfully, soon after Sidiahmed started attending the center weekly, a tented area was set up next door where malnourished children could play and mothers could learn techniques to help stimulate their babies. Set up by UNICEF and Save the Children, this space is now a haven for mothers coming through the center. UNICEF-trained health workers run classes here a few mornings a week after the mothers have taken their babies to be weighed and treated.
With a broad smile on her face, Fatimatou hands Sidiahmed a toy guitar, which he eagerly shakes to make a sound. Across the mat are similar scenes of mothers interacting with their babies.
Following a discussion on safe health and hygiene practices, two UNICEF-trained health workers demonstrate baby massage so mothers can help stimulate their babies. As the health worker demonstrates on Sidiahmed, he begins to fall asleep. Fatimatou laughs as she listens carefully to the techniques the health workers are showing her. Combined with nutrition treatment, the impact of the psychosocial activities on Sidiahmed’s development is clear. “Before, he was not moving. He was always lying down. Now he is starting to crawl. Now he lives!”
Fatimatou is keen to explain the benefits of the sessions. “The difference now is, as they play, they start to eat again. It ‘opens’ their appetite. If they have an appetite, they are happy. They feel like playing and moving. I think the activity is so important.”
Now that Sidiahmed is recovering and the rains have finally come, Fatimatou can start to think about the future. Watching her energetic son crawl across the mat, she says, “I hope he is going to have good health. I want him to be clever and go to school. I want that he performs well—I want him to become a man.”