75,000 children at risk of death from hunger in Nigeria

Children hawking rice and beans in Nigeria (Credit: Global Partnership for Education/flickr)

A growing hunger crisis and inadequate humanitarian response are conspiring against children in northeastern Nigeria. As many as half of all children under 5 years old are acutely malnourished, according to Save the Children. If nothing is done, up to 75,000 children could die – about 205 a day.

Northeast Nigeria faces a crisis unfolding at “high speed,” said U.N. humanitarian coordinator Peter Lundberg at a press conference Tuesday, according to AFP.

The hope is these dire warnings will help raise money to support children in the region. The U.N. appeal for 2016 is only 38 percent funded. Another $1 billion is needed for next year, twice that of the current appeal, said Save’s Nigeria country director Ben Foot. That, too, will be severely underfunded if the international community does not step up.

The need for more money and the reality that it is unlikely to come could be a death sentence for tens of thousands of children.

“Children are arriving here fighting for their lives. Our intensive care unit is already over capacity and we are having to move severely malnourished children to mattresses on the floor,” said Foot, in a statement. Our medical staff are working around the clock but in the absence of new funding it won’t be long before we could be in the painful position of having to turn away sick and starving children.”

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There are 4.6 million severely food-insecure Nigerians in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States, the World Food Program estimated. More than 700,000 people are targeted for food assistance through the end of the year. That number is expected to surpass 1 million at the start of 2017.

World leaders will meet for a funding conference in Geneva in early December. Save the Children is urging leaders to pledge and distribute more money to support the effort to reach more people.

The ongoing conflict between the Islamist militant group Boko Haram and the Nigerian military displaced more than 2.6 million people. The majority are still in Nigeria. People left their homes and missed the planting season. The major source of income and food is gone.

Surveys by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Save the Children find an acute malnutrition rate from 20 percent to 50 percent in parts of Borno state. USAID characterizes it as a “nutrition emergency.” The agency agrees that the biggest constraint to the response is money, not conflict.

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Doctors Without Borders is working in the city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. Acute malnourishment and malaria are the leading concerns for the group. The area is relatively safe from the fighting, but it has malnutrition rates as high as some areas where the conflict persists. They are struggling to keep up with the influx of people.

“Our triage was overwhelmed by the number of children under five years of age; they are the most vulnerable. But we also experienced the deaths of too many older children. They were victims of the effect of severe malaria on bodies already weakened by malnutrition, and were not able to fight off disease,” said Helle Poulsen-Dobbyns, a program coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, in a recent dispatch.

“That’s why I kept telling the team, ‘It’s all about food.'”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.