As the G8 leaders sit down at Camp David this week, it is to be hoped that the attention of the world's media won't be on what they will be eating or what their partners are wearing as has happened at previous summits. If, as is expected, a new food security and nutrition initiative is to be announced, then this is the real story, at least for millions of people across the Sahel region currently at risk of chronic malnutrition.
In Niger last year 300,000 children were treated for severe malnutrition - an astonishing 15% of all children treated for malnutrition worldwide. And that was before the onset of the so-called 'hungry season' which this year has come early due to a complex set of factors afflicting the region that I've written about here before.
UNICEF estimates that across the Sahel, one million children under the age of five could need life-saving aid. As I write the figure out in words, I can hardly believe that we are once again facing the spectre of such a catastrophe. That's a whole generation of children who, if they survive, will more than likely have their physical and mental development irreparably compromised for lack of enough to eat. This is the Great Silent Tsunami that keeps happening year after year with some years, like this one, worse than others. But who's listening? Did you know that a severely malnourished child does not cry but instead dies in silence?
The consequences of chronic malnutrition for young children are almost too many to list: an increased likelihood of early death; reduced immunity to life-threatening diseases like diarrhoea; a more susceptible disposition to kidney damage, diabetes and heart disease; stunting; impaired cognitive skills; poor physical coordination; in girls a higher tendency to give birth to small babies when they're of child-bearing age. Nutrition is one of the cornerstones of enabling children in countries like Niger to try and break the poverty gridlock that they find themselves born into. But imagine trying to concentrate in class when all you had to eat last night was a nutrient poor 'meal' of bitter leaves.
According to medical data, pregnant women, lactating women and young children are most vulnerable to malnutrition. Anemia increases the risk of mortality for both mother and baby at childbirth and other threats posed by malnutrition during pregnancy include premature delivery, obstructed labour, postpartum heaemorrhage and birth defects.
In a report published last week by Save The Children, Niger emerged as the worst place in the world to be a mother. Then there's the stark fact that nearly one third of Niger's children are malnourished and one in seven dies before the age of five. None of which makes for easy bedtime reading. With no fairytale ending in sight and food prices still on the rise, Plan Niger has been stepping up its work to support food distribution, school feeding programmes, the restocking of cereal banks, small scale gardening projects and nutrition counselling. Other international agencies have also been redoubling their efforts and there is greater coordination than at any time previously.
But it will not be enough. We know that for sure. G8 leaders must make fighting malnutrition a priority. Failure to act now will have devastating consequences for a whole generation of children in Niger and across West Africa.
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