International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Malnutrition in Mali: A slow burn emergency

Mali is struggling to cope with a prolonged drought and food crisis that is affecting large areas of the Sahel region of West Africa. The crisis has been made worse by a spreading internal conflict.  On World Food Day, the International Rescue Committee's Peter Biro reports on the worsening crisis and what the IRC is doing to help. Posted on October 16, 2012

Video Transcription

[A doctor is seeing to infant patients in a small health center.]

PETER BIRO: Keita Cheick Oumar, a doctor with the International Rescue Committee, checks on patients in a health clinic located in the densely populated Kati district of Mali. Kati, near the Malian capital of Bamako, has been hard hit by the country’s deepening hunger crisis, which has had an especially devastating impact on children. More than 14,000 children under the age of five are thought to be suffering from severe acute malnutrition in Kati alone.  This is Jabadjie. She was rushed to the clinic by IRC volunteers who travel throughout Kati district to identify malnourished children, informing villages about the help available at the health clinic. She is 16 months old and weighs only a little over 9 pounds, or 4 kilograms. Severely malnourished, Jabadjie also is suffering from pneumonia and anemia, ravaging her already weakened immune system.   

TASHA GILL, IRC director, Mali and Niger: Mali has a chronic food and nutrition crisis that has been aggravated this year in 2012. The lean period, the hungry period you could call it, that usually starts in April, started early this year because of the drought last year. However, Mali’s case is particularly complicated because there’s not just the food and nutrition crisis that’s affecting all the Sahel region—there’s also a conflict going on. Starting in January an armed conflict began in the northern part of Mali; in March there was a coup d’état.
PETER BIRO: Despite political chaos in the south and an Islamist militant takeover in the north, native Malian IRC staff members have managed to deliver health services, water and education across Mali. At 35 community health centers in Kati, they provide additional medical staff, procure essential medicines and organize mothers’ groups to improve infant and child nutrition.
KEITA CHEICK OUMAR, IRC doctor [translated from French]: Here, we treat cases of severe acute malnutrition with complications. We collaborate with other services here, with the radio, with other doctors on how to address problems, and we treat them until they are cured.
SEYDOU DIARRA, Malian father [translated from local language]: The health of my child has worried me for what must have been over two years that he was sick. Upon my arrival, the doctors welcomed me warmly and treated my child. They taught us many things. I salute them and I’ll spread the message everywhere. I thank them for their courage.
[Outside, a group of actors performs a skit for a large audience of community members of all ages.]

PETER BIRO: IRC workers are also training community members to recognize the symptoms of severe malnutrition so that they can get children like Jabadjieto the clinic for treatment before it’s too late.  To help identify symptoms, such as a swollen abdomen, listlessness and excess fluids under the skin, the IRC uses a local theater group to get the message across. The actors visit villages and put on open-air skits in the evening, always attracting hundreds of men, women and children. Because of poverty and lack of education, parents often do not recognize the symptoms of malnutrition, or know where to go for treatment. Small and underdeveloped children are common, and sometimes the most severely malnourished children are beyond help when they’re finally brought to the health facilities. This year and the next, the IRC will treat over 8,000 children at health centers in Kati, as well as improving water and hygiene at community health centers serving thousands of people. Approximately 160,000 children will be screened for malnutrition, and their families informed on good child care and feeding.  But there is still more to be done.

TASHA GILL: This crisis is still ongoing, and we’re afraid that we’re going to see it continue for quite some time. This is what I would call a “slow-burn emergency.” The food crisis and nutrition crisis in the Sahel is not going away.