The Sahel belt of West Africa is a region rich and diverse in cultural traditions and beliefs, which are often taught from an early age and carried on for life. The tradition that a woman stops breastfeeding her children once she becomes pregnant again to prevent disease, is just one of them.
However, with the World Health organisation recommending mothers to breastfeed their children for the first six months to achieve optimal growth, development and health, weaning babies onto solid adult foods too early could be putting thousands of children lives at risk of acute malnutrition. And as a major food crisis creeps over the Sahel, with one million children at risk of deadly hunger by spring 2012, this tradition is now proving more dangerous than ever.
Such is the case with little 16-month-old Diahara whose mother immediately stopped breastfeeding her when she fell pregnant again a few months ago. The little baby’s grandmother took over responsibility for feeding her with the same foods that the rest of the family eat. The sudden withdrawal of breast milk and the change to foods that she was not ready for, was too much for Diahara’s body to cope with and it rejected everything she was fed. Her health began to deteriorate rapidly, and she suffered several bouts of diarrhoea and vomiting until she was at the stage where she could no longer eat anything.
Her Grandmother explains, “Over time she grew worse. She was in pain, crying and shouting through the night. A few days later we noticed that her feet were swollen and she continued to get worse.”
When Diahara arrived at Action Against Hunger’s nutrition centre in Selibaby, Mauritania, she weighed just 7.1kg, which is less than 75 per cent of the weight she should have been.
For 18-month-old Mariam it was a similar story. When she arrived at the same centre as Diahara, she weighed an alarming 4.5kg. Like Diahara, when she was a little baby she was weaned off breast milk early, when her mother became pregnant. Her weight plummeted and she too developed diarrhoea and vomiting. After a short time Mariam had stopped eating. Then she stopped crying. After a few weeks she was completely vacant and unresponsive to anything at all.
The staff at the centre found that as well as suffering from severe acute malnutrition, Mariam was severely dehydrated and had a lung infection. As a major food crisis draws near, Action Against Hunger teams on the ground are expecting to see more and more malnourished children arriving at their centres. In Mauritania acute malnutrition rates are already above the WHO’s emergency threshold in the Gorgol region, and by spring 13,000 children, just like Mariam and Diahara, could be suffering from severe acute malnutrition.
Drought across the Sahel has resulted in poor harvests and this year the annual lean season is beginning much earlier than usual. Families are still recovering from previous food crises, and are now struggling to buy food due to rising food prices, forced to resort to severe methods of coping such as reducing their daily meal intake and eating wild leaves to survive. 11 million people across the Sahel are at risk of food insecurity.
When they arrived at the centre, both Mariam and Diahara were immediately admitted for emergency treatment and were given nutritious therapeutic medicines, fed slowly through a drip, to nurse them back to full health. Now, just a few weeks later, Diahara’s swelling has begun to subside and Mariam has put on the weight she desperately needed and is now able to eat once again.
The children’s families were given special kits containing soaps, baby potties, mosquito nets and cleaning products, to ensure their children grow up in a safe and hygienic environment. They were also given lots of help and advice from teams at the feeding centre about the most nutritious types of food to feed their family.
Action Against Hunger teams will continue to monitor Mariam and Diahara’s recovery and will ensure that their families have the right tools to provide their children with the nutrition they need to grow up strong and healthy.
Action Against Hunger is already assisting 800,000 people across the Sahel. However, with the food crisis set to intensify over the coming weeks, teams are in a race against time to save as many children’s lives as possible before it is too late.
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