Children malnourished in Ivory Coast because of inflated food prices, civil war legacy

MANKONO, Ivory Coast (AP) — Eight-month-old Aminata Sanogo weighed little more than a newborn as her mother took the severely malnourished baby to the hospital, traveling past marketplaces piled high with mangos and avocados. By the time they arrived, it was too late.

Aminata died some 20 minutes after arriving at the hospital in this town in northern Ivory Coast. Unlike outbreaks of mass hunger in some other parts of Africa, it wasn't due to a lack of food in the area.

It was due, in part, to the rebels who set up roadblocks in the bush and extort money, including from farmers bringing their produce to market. Farmers consequently raise their prices to eke out a profit, pushing the cost of many types of food beyond the reach of impoverished families.

Locals say the land here is so fertile that growing food is as simple as dropping a seed on the ground and spitting on it. Yet when the British medical aid group Merlin set up an operation in Ivory Coast's Worodougou district last June, almost one in 10 children under 5 was suffering from severe malnutrition.

In their first six months on the ground, Merlin staff treated more than 1,000 children with severe malnutrition, which can stunt physical and mental growth. Roughly 20 children died during treatment, country director Eric Gerard said, though the program has lost track of nearly 150 other children following their discharge, some of whom they suspect have also died. The aid workers estimate that 80 percent of children suffer from anemia because they are not consuming enough vitamins and minerals.

In the isolated village of Kougbere, nurse Emmanuel Konin stretched an emaciated child along a tape measure and called out his height to an assistant who noted it down on a chart that helps diagnose malnutrition. Konin's team of four visits one village each day to try and identify malnourished children before the cases get too severe.

The people here have never been to school and some haven't ever seen a doctor, Konin said. His team has trouble persuading mothers to use modern treatments because they aren't always trusted. That distrust of established medical practices may also have contributed to little Aminata's death.

"We told Aminata's mother to bring her baby in for treatment, but she waited a whole week," Konin recalled. "By the time she got to the hospital in Mankono it was already too late."

A recent UN report on malnutrition says more than 40 percent of people have stunted growth in the region. The causes are complex, but the report singled out soaring food prices that force families to eat less.

Eric Gerard, Merlin's country director, said food prices never came back down after they spiked in 2008 and that several factors, including a changing climate which led to thinner harvests, have also contributed to malnutrition here.

Ivory Coast is one of the most developed countries in Africa, with skyscrapers and six-lane highways funded by the world's largest production of cocoa. But the benefits haven't reached the northern regions, where rebels took up arms in 2002 to demand their share of the country's riches. The West African nation has been divided between a rebel-controlled north and a government-controlled south ever since.

The sides formed a unity government in 2007 but many people here are still too afraid to work their fields and only cultivate a small garden next to their house, barely enough to feed their families, Gerard said.

Even though government authorities have returned to their posts, rebel soldiers still erect roadblocks. Very professional in their berets and crisp uniforms on the main highways, once in the bush, they are no more than mere boys wearing ripped T-shirts. They stop the few vehicles traveling the roads and demand money — their only source of income.

The New Forces rebel command says their more disciplined members regularly patrol to try to remove the roadblocks, but it's not enough.

"Some roadblocks are so far into the bush that our patrols don't even make it there, and they continue to racketeer the local population," said rebel spokesman Siritigui Konate.