Mali: 660,000 children facing severe malnutrition

7 Oct 2013

2013, Koulikoro, Mali: A mother and her young child at a health centre in the town of Kati, in central west Mali. An estimated 660,000 children are at risk of severe malnutrition in Mali this year. NGOs and UN agencies are leading efforts to improve treatment and education. Credit: OCHA/Diakaridia Dembele
Hundreds of thousands of children across Mali are at risk of severe malnutrition. NGOs and UN agencies are leading efforts to improve treatment and education in the west of the country.

Two-year old Korian Togola is lying in a bed at the health centre in Kati, in the Koulikoro region in Mali’s central west. A tube runs from her nose. This is how the doctors and medical staff are feeding her. Korian, like many children across Mali, is severely malnourished and her mother, Aissetou, brought her here four days ago for treatment.

“Before coming here, I tried to visit all kinds of traditional healers and caregivers to save my child,” says 21-year-old Aissetou, who has spent the past four days at her daughter’s bed side. “I have found hope again.”

The Kati clinic, like many others in Koulikoro, is run by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an NGO. Since first arriving in Kati in April 2012, IRC staff have seen a dramatic increase in the number of severely malnourished children arriving at the clinic.

When they arrived, there were almost no children coming in. Between May and July 2012, 10-15 children were arriving for treatment each week. In December the admission average climbed to 35-40 children a week. Today, about 130 children are being seen by the doctors.

The reasons for this increase are two-fold: first, more children are becoming sick, and second, parents are becoming more aware of the clinics and of the warning signs of severe malnutrition – a positive development.

Awareness raising campaign

“(These) growing admissions can be explained by the increase of malaria and diarrhoea linked to the rainy season,” says Dr.Aminata Koné, who was recruited by IRC to manage the centre. “Bad weaning practices and poor diet are other reasons why children are malnourished.”

Malnutrition is endemic in Koulikoro and in much of Mali. This year, an estimated 660,000 children across the country are believed to be at risk of severe malnutrition. But one of the main impediments that the IRC and authorities faced was a lack of awareness within communities about malnutrition and its symptoms. In response to this, they launched an awareness-raising campaign across Koulikoro.

The campaign has been a success. “I walked from 4am to 9am to reach the centre and save my child’s life,” says Kadia Coulibaly who lives in Dombila village, 20km from the Faladie community health center  - another clinic run by IRC that is on the outskirts of Kati.

In fact, the success of the campaign means that the clinic is now running at above its intended capacity of 60 patients. “Currently, our services are in high demand and the team is overwhelmed,” says Dr. Koné. “But despite the difficulties, we have a 95 per cent success rate and a (fatality) rate of less than 5 per cent.”

Staff have taken to placing sleeping mats on the floor or any other place that space can be found so that all children who arrive at the centre can receive emergency assistance.

At the Faladié community health centre, the IRC is running a blanket feeding project where they are providing food to malnourished children under the age of five in an effort to prevent the onset of severe malnutrition. Here too, their operations are being stretched to capacity.

“The programme’s target was to support 107 children between April and December 2013,” says Dr. Siaka Ballo, another IRC physician. “As of today, the centre has already treated 70 percent of this target, and we think that it will be exceeded by December.”

Improving education

Support for families does not stop once a child recovers. With funding and support from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the European Union’s humanitarian branch (ECHO) mothers receive education about malnutrition prevention, including information on the dietary needs of their children, weaning techniques, malaria protection and hygiene promotion. They also receive food parcels to help their child’s continued recovery.

“We do all we can to prevent children from dying as a result of malnutrition. During the rainy season, malnutrition rates are on the rise, as well as cases of severe acute malnutrition with complications, and the number of deaths,” says Tasha Gill, the head of IRC’s Mali mission. “We need long-term resources to ensure quality treatment and to tackle the roots causes of malnutrition.”

The humanitarian community in Mali has appealed for US$80 million in 2013 to tackle malnutrition across the country. To date, only about $26 million – less than a third of funds needed – have been received. Despite this, aid organizations have been able to treat almost 168,000 acutely malnourished children under the age of five.