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In an effort to avert a large-scale loss of life due to malnutrition and disease, UNICEF is ramping up its operations in eight countries in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa. An initial $67 million is urgently needed for UNICEF’s relief operations to save children’s lives and prevent a humanitarian disaster from unfolding.
It is estimated that across the region more than one million children will suffer in 2012 from severe acute malnutrition, a life-threatening condition that requires immediate treatment. The period between harvests, also known as the “lean season,” is expected to arrive earlier this year than is typical.
Throughout the Sahel, poor rainfall has exacerbated food insecurity and loss of livestock, increasing malnutrition. The rise in food prices is also affecting the ability of households to buy food and other necessities and increasing the strain on their livelihoods, jeopardizing children’s lives.
“When humanitarian agencies and the international community are able to act in time to prevent disaster, they can save a tremendous number of lives,” said Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. “The lessons of the emergency in Somalia and across the Horn of Africa are crystal clear: when the warning signs of a crisis are there, as they are now in the Sahel, we need the resources to respond immediately to prevent death and human suffering. We are determined to avoid a catastrophe for children and their families.”
The Sahel nutrition crisis and UNICEF’s emergency response cover the entire countries of Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and the northern regions of Cameroon, Nigeria and Senegal. Niger, where an estimated 331,000 children will face severe acute malnutrition this year, is the hardest-hit. UNICEF’s response will focus on the treatment of children with severe acute malnutrition, together with emergency efforts in health, water, sanitation and hygiene, HIV, education, and child protection.
Under-nutrition poses the greatest risk factor for mortality and morbidity among young children, accounting for at least 35 percent of all child deaths per year in the region. While it is crucial to combat malnutrition across the Sahel in order to save lives, an effective response also needs to tackle the underlying and structural causes of malnutrition.
Malnourished children are more likely to fall pretty to infectious disease compared to non-malnourished children, as they have weaker immune functions. In turn, infectious disease lowers a child’s nutritional status, thus spurring a vicious cycle of malnutrition and disease.
Past experience in the region shows that in times of emergency, women and children face multiple protection risks. As population movements increase during the lean season, so does exposure to violence, abuse and neglect.
In addition, as part of their survival strategies, children from vulnerable households may be forced to drop out of school in order to work in agriculture, mining and other economic activities. Boys may be sent to beg in the streets of towns and cities, and girls may get involved in petty trading or domestic work to support their families.
Working in the Sahel for decades, UNICEF increased its delivery of life-saving interventions to more than 700,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition across the region last year and mounted a massive response to save lives during the food crises in 2005 and 2010.
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