Humanitarian CrisesNews

MSF Overwhelmed By ‘Unprecedented’ Rise In Nigeria’s Severe Malnutrition Cases

“We are resorting to treating patients on mattresses on the floor because our facilities are full.  Children are dying. If immediate action is not taken, more lives hang in the balance,” said the country representative, Dr Simba Tirima.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has called for more support to address medical challenges in northern Nigeria, which are fast worsening and overstretching its resources.

In a statement shared with HumAngle on Tuesday, June 4, during a press briefing in Abuja, the medical humanitarian organisation noted that it has recently recorded an “extraordinary increase” in the number of children admitted for severe, life-threatening malnourishment, with the admissions doubling in some places compared to figures from last year.

Every year, communities in the Sahel region go through what is known as the lean season, a months-long period between harvests during which food becomes scarcer and less affordable. In Nigeria, this is usually between June and August. A spike in malnutrition cases is expected around this time.

However, MSF has observed a sharp increase in cases even before the lean season, which has overwhelmed its operations.

For example, in April 2024, the organisation’s medical team in Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria, admitted 1,250 severely malnourished children with complications for inpatient care. This is double the number of cases recorded for the same month in 2023. This has forced MSF to increase its capacity from the initially planned 200 beds to 350.

The numbers in some other parts of the country are even worse. In Bauchi, the facility operated by MSF recorded a 188 per cent increase in admissions of severely malnourished children between January and March this year compared to the first quarter of 2023.

A number of inpatient and therapeutic feeding centres in northwestern Nigeria saw an increase ranging from 20 to 100 per cent in the number of cases between March and April.

“We are resorting to treating patients on mattresses on the floor because our facilities are full.  Children are dying. If immediate action is not taken, more lives 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,” said MSF’s Nigeria Country Representative, Dr Simba Tirima.

“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?”

The non-governmental organisation stresses that the humanitarian response in Nigeria is still inadequate despite the troubling situation, especially as regions outside of the North East are still not prioritised.

It described reductions in already limited funding available for aid in the North West as alarming. The implication of this is that support can only reach people with severe cases of malnutrition. 

“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,” said Dr Tirima.

At the Abuja press conference, MSF shared its 2023 activity report, which summarises its accomplishments in 11 states across Nigeria.

The report showed that it admitted over 80,000 people and conducted nearly 690,000 outpatient consultations last year. It treated over 322,000 people for malaria, over 260,000 people for malnutrition, over 14,000 people for diphtheria, over 12,000 children for measles, and over 4,700 people for cholera. It also treated hundreds of people for Lassa fever, meningitis, and tuberculosis. It assisted over 2,300 survivors of sexual violence and facilitated nearly 22,000 deliveries, over 2,600 of which were through caesarean sections. It conducted over 28,000 mental health consultations. Its medical teams also performed hundreds of surgeries for noma survivors and women with vesicovaginal fistula.

The conference featured a panel session with contributions from MSF Medical Coordinator Dr AbdulWahab Mohamed, Head of Mission MSF Belgium Karsten Noko, and Head of Mission Advisor Usman Buba.

They described the malnutrition crisis across the country as an “unprecedented situation” and said the non-profit would clearly not be able to “cope with the medical needs in the lean season”.

They acknowledged that low measles vaccination coverage and Nigeria’s economic situation are some of the factors behind increased malnutrition cases but said more studies are needed to determine to what extent the various factors are responsible for the crisis. Food inflation in Nigeria has skyrocketed in recent years due to the falling value of the Naira and the removal of subsidies by the government.

Buba gave the example of one woman who had mixed feelings about getting discharged from one of the MSF’s facilities. While she was happy that her child’s health had improved, she was sad about returning home, where she would have to worry about putting food on the table. This, he explained, was because of the rising cost of living in the country.

While giving his concluding remarks, Dr Tirima stressed that while it is important to worry about economic development and peacebuilding, it is also crucial that all hands are on deck to address urgent humanitarian needs.

“As we sit here now, there are children who are dying. As we speak now, there is a mother who is losing her life because she doesn’t have proper access to care. As we sit here now, there is a family that is grieving because they have to make the top choices between feeding this one and feeding the other one,” he pointed out. 

“And so when we call for action, we call for immediate action to address the immediate needs first while all these things [development and peacebuilding] are being discussed. We should be asking, ‘how do we do as much as we can with the limited [resources] that we have?’”

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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