Malnourishment in Northern Nigeria’s children at catastrophic levels – MSF

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) on Tuesday said that its inpatient facilities in the northern part of the country have experienced an extraordinary increase in admissions of severely malnourished children with life-threatening complications, surpassing last year’s figures by over 100 per cent in some locations.

MSF said that this situation is an alarming indication of a premature peak of the lean season and the increase in acute malnutrition that accompanies it, typically expected in July.

Speaking at the presentation of its National Activity Report 2023 and Q1 Medical Data for 2024 in Abuja, Dr Simbia Tirima, MSF’s Country Representative in Nigeria, expressed concern that the organisation is resorting to treating patients on mattresses on the floor because its facilities are full, resulting in children’s deaths.

He warned that if immediate action is not taken, more lives would hang in the balance.

“Everyone needs to step in to save lives and allow the children of northern Nigeria to grow free from malnutrition and its disastrous long-term, if not fatal, consequences,” he said.

Tirima stressed the urgent need to scale up humanitarian assistance and called upon Nigerian authorities, international organisations and donors to diagnose and treat malnourished children promptly to prevent associated complications and deaths.

He also stressed the necessity for sustained, long-term initiatives to mitigate the underlying causes of this urgent problem.

He said, “We’ve been warning about the worsening malnutrition crisis for the last two years. 2022 and 2023 were already critical, but an even grimmer picture is unfolding in 2024. We can’t keep repeating these catastrophic scenarios year after year. What will it take to make everyone take notice and act?”.

In April 2024, MSF’s medical team in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, admitted 1,250 severely malnourished children with complications to the inpatient therapeutic feeding centre, doubling the figure for April 2023.

Forced to urgently scale up capacity, by the end of May, the centre accommodated 350 patients, far surpassing the 200 beds initially designated for the peak malnutrition season in July and August.

Also in the Northeast, the MSF-operated facility in Bauchi state’s Kafin Madaki hospital recorded a significant 188 per cent increase in admissions of severely malnourished children during the first three months of 2024 compared to the same period in 2023.

In the northwestern part of the region, in Zamfara State, the inpatient centres in Shinkafi and Zurmi have received up to 30 per cent more monthly admissions in April compared to March.

Talata Mafara’s facility saw about a 20 per cent increase in the same period.

Similarly, MSF inpatient facilities in major cities like Kano and Sokoto are also reporting alarming surges, by 75 and 100 per cent, respectively. The therapeutic feeding centre in Kebbi State also saw a rise of more than 20 per cent in inpatient admissions from March to April.

Despite the alarming situation, the overall humanitarian response remains inadequate. Other non-profit organisations active in the north are also overwhelmed.

The United Nations and Nigerian authorities issued an urgent appeal in May for $306.4 million to address the pressing nutritional needs in Adamawa and Yobe states. Yet, this will be insufficient, ignoring other parts of northern Nigeria where needs also outweigh the current capacity of organisations to respond efficiently.

The catastrophic nutritional situation seen in recent years in northern Nigeria calls for a bigger response.

Persistently excluded from the formal humanitarian response, reductions in the already limited funding available for the Northwest have also dangerously affected the provision of crucial therapeutic and supplementary food. These supplies were completely unavailable in Zamfara for the first four months of this year and are now only available in lower quantities.

This reduction has meant that it is only possible to provide treatment for more severe malnutrition cases, compromising an effective response that also addresses malnutrition earlier in its progression and avoids exposing children to a higher risk of mortality.

“We are alarmed by the reduction in aid at these critical times. Reducing nutritional support to only severely malnourished children is akin to waiting for a child to become gravely ill before providing care. We urge donors and authorities to increase support urgently for both curative and preventive approaches, ensuring that all malnourished children receive the care they desperately need,” states Dr Tirima.