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Child refugees in northern Cameroon

Moki Kindzeka / mc
March 11, 2014

About 100,000 children, including Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram attacks, are among the refugees sheltering in hospitals and refugee camps in north Cameroon. Many are under five and suffering from acute malnutrition.

Cameroon -Nigeria border
A Nigeria-Cameroon border post. Nigeria's Islamist insurgency is preoccupying officials and aid agencies in neighboring CameroonImage: Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images

In a makeshift emergency ward in Meskine private hospital on the outskirts of Maroua, north Cameroon, medical staff are struggling to save the life of young Abdoulaye Bobo. Outside of the clinic, three-year-old Nana Haminatou is waiting desperately to see the doctor. Nana's mother is getting impatient.

"My first child was not well. I took him to a traditional healer and he died. My second child is now very weak and I have decided to come to the hospital, because the government is asking us not to go for traditional treatment. Since I came here, nobody has attended to me," she told DW.

Manmha Catherine, a member of the hospital staff, said they have been overwhelmed by the number of malnourished children brought in for treatment in the last two months and they do not have the capacity to care for everyone.

"We lack infrastructure, we lack staff, so what is certain is that some of the children whose lives may have been saved will end up dying," she told DW.

Child be examined for malnutrition
'Do no have the capacity to take care of everyone'Image: DW/M. Kindzeka

Unknown number die during 'traditional healing'

Not all children suffering from malnutrition go to hospital for treatment. Cameroon's National Institute of Statistics reports that many severe cases are taken to traditional healers. The number of children dying at the hands of herbalists is unknown.

Refugee camp Menowo
International aid organizations have already deployed to Menowo, near Maroua in northern CameroonImage: DW/M. Kindzeka

DW visited Zhra Zuli, a traditional healer in Borongo, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Maroua. He has five children with him. They look seriously sick and malnourished. He showed DW one of the children, who he said was possessed by evil spirits.

"I receive suffering children here every day. 13 of them died in two weeks. Look at how pale this one is. He needs water and food before I can start cleaning him with some special potions since the children are possessed by evil spirits. If not - how you can explain that all of them are suffering from the same disease?" he asked.

The children in Maroua are mostly from families fleeing the violence in northern Nigeria, where the militant Islamist sect Boko Haram has been fighting to create an Islamic state governed by Shaaria law.

Comfort Manda, who escaped the fighting in Borno State in Nigeria, told DW the situation was so desperate and deplorable that she didn't know what to do next.

Nigerian refugees at Menowo camp
The Islamist insurgency has sent thousands of Nigerians fleeing across the border in search of safetyImage: DW/M. Kindzeka

"I came from Nigeria and my two children are sick. I have taken them to the hospital and find it difficult to provide their medicine. One of them has already died and I am still struggling with the other one I do not know what will happen at the end."

Other factors contributing to malnutrition

The French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the government of Cameroon and some United Nations agencies have already deployed staff to Menowo camp, near Maroua in northern Cameroon, which is offering temporary accommodation to at least 7,000 refugees.

MSF staff worker Jean Mark Eding believes poverty and climate change have been contributing to the increase in the number of case of malnutrition.
"There is either insufficient food for the children or it is completely absent," he told DW. "There were also environmental factors such as droughts, floods, insects that destroy crops and reduce food production" Eding said.

Refugees at Menowo camp
Water is in short supply in Menowo campImage: DW/M. Kindzeka

Officials also say that lack of basic healthcare, food insecurity, poor access to essential child-survival services and poor infant feeding practices are making the situation even worse.

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