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Sahel needs innovation, ALIMA has some good ideas

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 13 Dec 2013 03:01 PM
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A woman carries her baby in a pagne in the salt fields of Fatick, in Senegal. March 11, 2013. Photo by Misha Hussain
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DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – They ride around on motorbikes while other aid workers drive gas-guzzling 4x4s. ALIMA, a relatively new, little known medical charity doesn’t have much money or power, but it does have some good ideas about how to ease suffering in Africa’s Sahel region, where some 5 million children have acute malnutrition.   

Robert Piper, the UN coordinator for the Sahel, told me during an interview this week that the humanitarian response in the Sahel needed innovation.

So here are some groundbreaking ideas from ALIMA that could help address one of this century’s longest lasting emergencies. 

In research last year, ALIMA found that when given the appropriate training, African mothers were able to measure a child’s middle upper arm circumference (MUAC) – a measurement used to gauge if a child is malnourished or not – as effectively as a qualified nurse.

The research, conducted on 300 mothers, has far-reaching consequences for the approach to tackling the Sahel Crisis, Augustin Augier, Director for Development for ALIMA, told me at the charity’s headquarters in Dakar.

“It means that kids who are malnourished will come for medical attention much earlier, so we can give them the treatment in time to keep them healthy and prevent them from slipping into that dangerous stage where disease can rapidly lead to death,” he said.

“It also means that we no longer need to train an army of community health workers to screen children in remote villages when a mother can do it herself. The training takes 10 to 15 minutes, and the mothers then disseminate the technique amongst themselves so eventually everyone in the village knows,” Augier said.

The same training that helped mothers use MUAC tapes can also teach them how to use simplified thermometers, which look like soft plastic cards and are placed on a child’s forehead. 

“Every mother in Europe, or North America has a thermometer at home, so why not in sub-Saharan Africa?” said Augier. “The thermometer has three colours; green means OK, yellow means be careful and red means run to the health centre,” said Augier.  

Augier said malnutrition and disease peak during the agricultural season, so being able to check if your child is fit and healthy is crucial in terms of opportunity costs. 

“As a mother, you are worried that you’re child is sick because he is not eating, or has diarrhoea. You put it (the thermometer) on and check and that potentially saves you travel to the health centre, which 50 percent of the time is 5 kilometres away, and sometimes 10 to 15 kilometres away,” said Augier.  

“Going to the health centre take a whole day, and as disease peaks during the agricultural season, this would mean missing a day of agricultural labour, which only lasts for 60-90 days a year,” he said, noting that if you have six or seven children as they often do in Niger, you might end up missing 20 days in that short season of earning money or growing crops. 

ALIMA also has an idea, still in the research phase, about how to help mothers make sense of the complicated vaccination calendar that tells them when to go and get vaccinations at the local health centre. Lack of vaccinations is another key reason why children fall ill in the Sahel.   

“Mothers in Africa carry their children in cloths wrapped around their backs called pagnes. We intend to print the calendar and other information related to the kid’s health on one side of this cloth, and on the other side we will print different traditional patterns,” he said.

ALIMA is a small player in contrast to other NGOs operating in the Sahel like MSF, Oxfam or Save the Children, but these smaller, faster and more flexible NGOs could make all the difference in tackling the daunting Sahel Crisis. 

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