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MSF raises alarm over escalating malnutrition crisis in northwest

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Abuja, 03 July 2023 – A malnutrition crisis is escalating in northwest Nigeria, prompting international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to reinforce its activities while warning that the current humanitarian response is insufficient to avert a potential catastrophe in the coming months.

MSF has opened three new outpatient therapeutic feeding centres, in addition to the 10 inpatient centres and 32 outpatient centres that it already manages across Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara states.

Between January and May this year, MSF teams in northwest Nigeria provided inpatient care to 10,200 severely malnourished children with medical complications and admitted 51,000 children to its outpatient feeding programmes. Inpatient admissions were 26 per cent higher than in the same period in 2022 – numbers which were already unprecedently high.

A child on admission at the MSF ITFC with an IV line put in place for treatment.

This year, admissions are expected to continue rising. The ‘lean season’ – the period between harvests when stocks of food run low, which runs from May to August in Nigeria – only began recently, but bed occupancy is already at 100 per cent in several MSF treatment centres. 

“The numbers of malnourished children that we’re receiving in our facilities are a strong indicator that the further we get into the lean season, the more cases we’ll receive,” says MSF medical coordinator Htet Aung Kyi.

Northwest Nigeria has some of the worst health indicators in the country. Escalating levels of violence in recent years have contributed to turning an alarming malnutrition situation into a full-blown crisis. Armed groups regularly raid towns, loot property and kidnap local people for ransom. Many residents have fled their homes for safer areas. Others have stayed but are unable to access their farms or places of work due to the worsening insecurity. People in need of medical care face challenges reaching health centres and hospitals because of the risks of travelling on unsafe roads. 

New arrivals at the ITFC triage, some are referred, and others come for examination. They get MUAC tested, weight and height measured and blood test to determine if they need admission.

MSF teams say that children who recover from malnutrition and are discharged home often need to be readmitted later as their families struggle to find enough food to keep them healthy. This keeps children stuck in a spiral of malnutrition from which it is difficult to escape. 

“We eat when we have food, but there are days when we go hungry, and sometimes the children have to beg for food,” says Sadiya, whose child was treated for malnutrition at MSF’s therapeutic feeding centre in Katsina.

According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 78 per cent of people in northwest Nigeria live below the poverty line. Healthcare is often unaffordable or hard to access, and many children have never been vaccinated against common childhood diseases. A very limited amount of international aid reaches the region. All these factors have contributed to the growing numbers of malnourished children in urgent need of treatment. 

Despite the escalating crisis, northwest Nigeria lacks the attention and support required to set up a lifesaving response, which needs to include preventive measures such as food distributions and improvements to food security, as well as the early detection of malnutrition cases and timely treatment. MSF urges all aid organisations working in the country to scale up their humanitarian response, and calls on the Nigerian government and local health authorities to act now to prevent a catastrophic loss of life in the months ahead.

New arrivals at the ITFC triage, some are referred, and others come for examination. They get MUAC tested, weight and height measured and blood test to determine if they need admission.

MSF has been working in Nigeria since 1996. Currently its teams are responding to the health and malnutrition crisis in northwest Nigeria, working in 10 inpatient therapeutic feeding centres and 35 outpatient therapeutic feeding centres in Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara states.

MSF is also responding to a malnutrition emergency in northeast Nigeria, running a 120-bed intensive therapeutic feeding centre and an outpatient therapeutic feeding programme in Nilefa Kiji centre in Maiduguri, Borno state.

Last year, MSF teams across Nigeria provided inpatient care to 28,000 children with severe malnutrition and enrolled 175,000 children in its outpatient feeding programmes.

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