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NIGER: Passing along hunger but little milk

ZINDER, 5 August 2009 (IRIN) - While health workers counsel women in Niger to feed their newborns until age six months only breast milk, to boost their babies’ immunity and avoid malnutrition, some mothers are unable to do so because of their own poor health.

This is the third article in a five-part series marking World Breastfeeding Week and the slow uptake in West Africa of this life-saving practice.

In an intensive care nutrition centre run by the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)-- funded by the European Commission's  Humanitarian Aid Office --  for severely malnourished children in Zinder, the country’s second largest city 900km east of the capital, Nafissa Haboubacar leaned against a wall cradling her two-month old child. “I have no more milk,” said the mother. “I feel sick, but am not sure what I have,” she told IRIN.

Doctors in the unit explained how one of the highest priorities for babies at the centre was to increase their intake of breast milk. The attending MSF doctor, Nicolas Peyraud, told IRIN gastroenteritis diseases are a major child killer. “The mother's breast milk is a natural vaccine. But unfortunately, not all women are able to breastfeed.”

Haboubacar told IRIN even though she wants to feed her child, she is not sure she can. “Sometimes when I wake up, I do not have breakfast or lunch. So I am not sure from where this milk will come?”

The Ministry of Health focal point for breastfeeding, Karki Roumatou Adamou Arowa, told IRIN even a malnourished mother has a reserve of milk. “But to ensure that the quantity and quality of that milk is sufficient for her child, her health must be restored,” said Arowa.

MSF’s Peyraud told IRIN that the often dehydrated mothers are given food and liquids to increase milk production, while their babies are retrained to suck from their mother’s breasts through feeding tubes closely attached to the nipple that deliver milk formula, thereby stimulating breast milk production.

World Health Organization (WHO) recommends giving newborns only breast milk for their first months of life because of the milk’s natural antibodies and nutrients, but notes that, globally, less than 40 percent of infants aged six months and under are breastfed this way.

In Niger, this figure is less than 5 percent, the government’s Arowa told IRIN. She said that even if women are able to breastfeed exclusively, most feed their babies water in addition to breast milk. “These women do not realize 80 percent of breast milk is water and the other 20 percent, pure nutrients. But yet they say their babies need water to survive.”

Haboubacar at the intensive care centre told IRIN the baby on her lap was her tenth child.

She has lost six of the others.

pt/aj

Theme (s): Children, Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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