Aid needed now to save hungry children

Alarming results from a recent survey in Madagascar shows that malnutrition levels have reached up to 74 percent in some parts of the remote southeastern region of the country.

According to the study conducted by the Ministry of Health, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and a number of local NGOs, 400 children were already suffering from acute malnutrition and would die in the next few weeks if interventions were not put in place.

"The statistics are so high, I am worried that people might not even find them credible," UNICEF's Nutrition Officer, Dr Paula Valenti, told IRIN.

The rapid assessment study surveyed the southeastern Vangaindrano region and uncovered malnutrition rates estimated at 50 percent, affecting over 14,000 children.

Valenti said the survey results were provisional, but "we are sure there is a big problem - and what worries me most is the high percentage of children in the 'severe malnutrition' scale."

The root cause of Vangaindrano's chronic malnutrition is poor food security. Households are primarily dependent on farming, making their livelihoods extremely vulnerable to climatic conditions.

Flooding in early 2005, regular cyclones, parasitic infestation of sweet potato crops and now a drought affecting rice production meant the local population was struggling for survival, Valenti said. People have resorted to scavenging for wild roots, which were potentially poisonous if not properly prepared.

High transportation costs and the remoteness of many affected areas made the movement of food extremely difficult, aggravating the already precarious situation.

Income in the region has dropped sharply as a result of falling world commodity prices. The study noted that nearly half the population was forced to purchase food on credit.

The southeastern part of the island is heavily dependent on cash crops such as coffee, cloves and, particularly, vanilla. The price of vanilla had fallen from about US $180 per kg in 2004 to just $50 per kg in early 2005.