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A long road to a remarkable recovery

After a month in the main Niger country office in Niamey, we set off at 5.30am on the long road east to our field work in Maradi and Zinder regions. The road is straight, but my oh my is it bumpy. After 12 hours- my posterior no longer belongs to me- the pot holes stole any sensation 6 hours in. I think about the dedicated team who make this journey regularly with admiration.

The area we drive through is known as the ‘food basket’ of Niger, as it’s the only part of this desert country where anything grows. It’s a pitifully empty basket. It’s the rainy season but it’s only rained twice in a month and it’s one of the driest and most barren landscapes I’ve ever seen. Amongst the sand and the red earth, there are millet seedlings desperately trying to grow in the 35 degree heat, and accents of bright blues, magenta and yellow, which if you look closely, are women tirelessly tending to their crops, children strapped safely to their backs.

Save the Children began working in Niger in 2005 in response to a food crisis, when the rains simply didn’t come and locusts ravaged what little crops were growing. The country couldn’t produce enough food for its population, and the cost of imported food was out of reach for mothers with who have an average of 7 children and are living on less than $1.25 a day, leaving thousands of children severely malnourished. Even now, 1 in 2 children in Niger are malnourished.

After meeting the Maradi region team, we head to the intensive nutrition centre 32km away in Aguie. Children are referred here from Save the Children supported health centres, or from community based volunteers who are trained to check children for signs of malnourishment. Every child admitted to the centre is severely malnourished, and often have other life-threatening illnesses too. There were 83 children in the centre on the day we visited, but there can be up to 200.

As we enter the first building, where children are admitted and diagnosed, there is an eery quiet. All the beds are filled with silent little bodies and anxious mothers. The children here are all so fragile, they are too weak to cry out. Many simply can’t cry, their bodies too dehydrated to produce tears.

We find Balkissa, who arrived 4 days ago. She is severely malnourished but also has septicemia, from an infected wound which threatens to poison her bloodstream. She weighs just 7.4 kilos. I remember holding my cousin’s 3 month old baby just a month before, who told me with pride that he weighed 7 and a half kilos. I ask how old Balkissa is – 36 months…she is 3 years old.  That a 3 year old child can weigh no more than a 3 month old baby leaves me wondering how the dedicated team of doctors and nurses here ever manage to help children like Balkissa recover.

Children stay at the centre between 2-3 weeks, staying in the first phase for up to 10 days, where their tiny bodies are nursed with expert care, putting on weight thanks to therapeutic milk, every sip full of essential micronutrients.

In the next building, all the mothers and children are sitting up on the beds – and there is noise! Chat -chattering and gurgling surrounds us. A mother, Zara, beckons us over, holding her son Omar who is smiling and reaching out to grab my hair. It is such a contrast to the listless little bodies and lifeless eyes which had met us just moments before. Zara tells us that she came here thanks to advice from other mothers in her village whose children’s lives had been saved at the centre. We find out that Omar was in a critical condition just 10 days ago, suffering from pneumonia and barely able to breathe. She smiles and says, ‘Thank you, thank you for saving my son’. This is what Save the Children is all about, I think to myself.

As we enter the third structure, we are immediately met at the door by a chorus of mothers singing and clapping. A beautiful baby girl, Aminata, dressed in pink is laughing and dancing, bouncing up and down in the air in the arms of her young mother, Mariama. The children and mothers here are in the final recovery phase, where the children play and eat plumpy nut to help them reach their target weight, and mothers have their final health and nutrition education sessions.

This is not just an intensive nutrition centre for children. It’s an intensive learning experience for the mums too.They go on an intense emotional journey watching their children recover. They discover what simple steps they can take to prevent their children ever becoming malnourished and ever suffering again. The centre runs sessions on everything from using insecticide treated mosquito nets (like the ones the mothers and their babies have been sleeping under in the centre during their stay to prevent malaria), to the importance of exclusively breastfeeding until a baby is 6 months old, to build up their child’s immune system.

But, do children just end up coming back here again and again? The Doctor tells me that very few children are re-admitted. The advice the mothers receive on how to afford and prepare nutritious food for their family, and the access they have to Save the Children supported health centres, where we monitor children’s weight weekly and provide Plumpy doz – a pot of micronutrient food which prevents children becoming malnourished – mean that children who leave the centre are on a road to a brighter future. The mothers take the life-saving messages back to their villages too, saving even more lives.

Not all children survive however. 1 in 5 children in Niger will die before they reach their fifth birthday, from preventable causes. We know how to stop these needless deaths. In 2008 alone, we treated over 43,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition in the four districts where we work. We are working closely with the government here to help them fulfil their promise of providing free healthcare to children under five and pregnant mothers.

This centre in Aguie, Maradi region is literally saving hundreds of lives every week. This centre also runs out of funding in September. One of the reasons I’m here in Niger is to help the programme raise much needed funds.  As I say goodbye to the dedicated doctors and nurses who work non-stop, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, I want to be able to tell them that they will be able to continue saving children’s lives. I want to be able to tell them that Save the Children and our amazing supporters will not let the children down who are hanging onto life by a thread who they miraculously nurse back to health.

I want to tell mothers like Zara that she can continue to spread the word about the lifesaving centre, and that mothers who set off on the long journey, often over 15 kilometres on foot with their dying children, will not be turned away in September.

We urgently need more support to keep this intensive nutrition centre running. Is it possible to get support in time? I keep in mind what Eglantyne Jebb, our founder said: ‘We know it’s only impossible if we make it so. It’s only impossible if we refuse to attempt it”.

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