February 15 , 2012
By Guy Hubbard
A layer of dust cloaks the horizon around Mao, a town in Western Chad, deep in the Sahel region of Africa. Rain hasn’t fallen in years, and four seasons of crops have failed. Animals have long been dying here, but lately, children have too.
They are victims of an emerging nutrition crisis across the Sahel region, where, this year, an estimated 1 million children under age 5 are expected to suffer severe acute malnutrition – a potentially deadly condition. In Chad alone, that number is 127,000.
Ever-rising cases of malnutrition
The therapeutic feeding centre in Mao is a huddle of mud huts. Lately, white tents have popped up in the dusty courtyard – additions needed to care for the ever-rising numbers of malnourished children. The wards here are filled with the cries of hungry infants, but the sickest children are silent; they’re too weak to cry.
Awa Abakar brought her son here two weeks ago. He had diarrhoea and was rapidly losing weight.
“The child had diarrhoea, fever and scabs on his head,” Ms. Abakar said, “so I took him to the Bira health centre. They gave him two injections and sent me to the Tula health centre, where they diagnosed severe malnutrition and then they sent me here.”
er son is one of the lucky ones. He made it here in time, and through intense treatment, is beginning to recover.
But it isn’t just crop failure that’s the problem. Years of conflict and instability have left the country’s health system in tatters. Access to safe drinking water and sanitation services in Chad is among the lowest in the world, causing diarrhoea and with it, malnutrition. In addition, a lack of exclusive breastfeeding and a range of harmful cultural practices have left children vulnerable and weak.
UNICEF and partners have been working with the Government of Chad to identify and respond to the crisis; last year alone, 68,000 children under age five with severe acute malnutrition were treated in UNICEF-supported feeding centres like the one in Mao.
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow visited the sand-smothered town and its therapeutic feeding centre, helping to raise awareness of the approaching nutrition crisis. She spoke to mothers and comforted malnourished children. It was her fourteenth visit to Chad and her third visit to the country on behalf of UNICEF.