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Helping malnourished children to flourish in the Sahel

Health Rehabilitation
Burkina Faso Mali Niger

Malnutrition hampers children’s physical and mental development, leaving them in an extremely fragile state of health. Handicap International is responding to the particularly acute problem in the Sahel. Over the next two years, the organisation intends to limit the impact of malnutrition in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, to ensure that children in the Sahel can grow up in the best possible health.

A malnourished child refugee found during an evaluation mission in the Abala camp north of Niamey, Niger.

A malnourished child refugee found during an evaluation mission in the Abala camp north of Niamey, Niger. | © Xavier Joubert / Handicap International

Due to a lack of essential vitamins and minerals, children with malnutrition suffer from restricted growth and develop after-effects which can be disabling in the long term. The result is not always fatal, but the impact on their quality of life can be devastating.

According to Eric Weerts, a Handicap International rehabilitation specialist: "Physiotherapy can make all the difference to malnourished children. These children are very weak and need to recover their motor functions if they are to grow normally. This is why as well as fighting malnutrition by distributing food supplements, it is vital to also provide physiotherapy and emotional stimulation, in order to overcome any negative effects on the children's growth."

Handicap International's project, which was launched in the Sahel in September 2015, focuses on three areas: physiotherapy, emotional stimulation and psychological follow-up.

"For children with malnutrition, their emotional recovery is as important as their physical recovery," Eric Weerts explains. "Mothers often distance themselves from a malnourished child as they think the child will die. This emotional distance stunts the child's physical development. That is why we try to stimulate the physical and psychological connection between mother and child through touch, cuddling etc. Physical progress can then be very quick - young infants can sometimes catch up months of growth. Sometimes a child suddenly starts crawling or walking like any other child of the same age."

The Sahel, a vulnerable region

Malnutrition is endemic in the Sahel region, which is often affected by drought. In some regions of Niger and Burkina Faso, the lack of food has been aggravated with the arrival of refugees from Mali. This has increased population numbers in villages which were already finding it hard to feed their inhabitants. In the north of Mali, according to the figures recorded by the United Nations' World Food Programme one in three families lives with no food security.

Thanks to Belgian funding (DGD Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid), Handicap International has created a project called ESSPOIR, an acronym close to the word for "hope" in French. This project aims to help children with malnutrition and allow them flourish in a more stable environment.

The ESSPOIR project will last for two years. To ensure the sustainability of the project, Handicap International is working together with the existing healthcare structures and will train local care service providers and nutrition specialists. The organisation is also working with the authorities on the response times of health structures to ensure they can act quickly in the event of an imminent food crisis.

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