"Each year the number of children we see goes up," says Mahamat Abacar, health focal point at Mao hospital in northern Chad. "In 2010 there were around 800 serious cases, last year 3,900, and this year already we've treated over 2,000 babies."
In the grounds of the hospital, tents are being erected in the sand to make room for the expected influx of new admissions as the effects of drought across the Sahel start to be felt. An estimated 127,000 people are already classed as malnourished in Chad following poor rains, insect infestations and a sudden drop in wages sent home from Chadians working in Libya.
"We have 50 nutritional centres in the region," Abacar says. "If the children have a very serious condition, they come here for intensive support. It usually takes a week or so for them to be in a stable enough position to go home and then they will be monitored every week by a local or mobile clinic."
Asked about the reasons for this year's rise in numbers he cites the poor rains, insects and return of workers. But also says that there needs to be more environmental protection. "People don't have food security because they can't grow anything. The desert is encroaching and we don't seem to be able to stop it. We need to get people to change their behaviours, in looking after the environment but also in ensuring good child nutrition." He adds that many mothers don't know why their child got sick or what they could have done to prevent it. "We need to educate people. The Red Cross is helping with this. It will take time but if volunteers go to each village, we'll get the message out."
Awa Abaker didn't know what was wrong when her baby became weak. "He stopped eating and vomited whenever I tried to feed him," she says. Living in a remote community in North West Chad, she walked for 20 kilometres to reach a clinic where they immediately transferred her and her son Omar to the hospital in Mao. "I didn't know what was wrong, but now we are getting help," she says, supporting Omar to sit. He's eight months old but looks just half the size he should be.
Awa is joined by eleven other mothers with their babies in the small room in the health centre where they spend day and night, comforting their infants and praying for their recovery. After a week of medication and feeding (often through a tube in their nose) most are ready to be released with supplies of nutritional supplements for both the babies and their mothers.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies has launched an emergency appeal to support the Red Cross of Chad in providing mobile clinics to assess the nutrition status of infants, and making referrals where necessary. Volunteers will also provide training and advice to mothers to help change the way their currently feed their children, prevent illnesses and be able to spot the early signs when things do go wrong.