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'Hungry season' preys on Niger's youngest

By Anderson Cooper
CNN

Niger baby
Tens of thousands of children in Niger suffer from severe malnutrition.

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MARADI, Niger (CNN) -- In a small village in southern Niger, hundreds of mothers gather with their hungry children hoping somebody will help them.

Hunger is nothing new in Niger. Every year there's a several-month gap. They call it the "hungry season," the time between when the crops have been planted and they're harvested. With the drought last year, the crops simply didn't come up, so that hungry season this year is longer and more intense than it's been.

That's why Niger is in crisis. Aid agencies say the severe food shortage has put some 3.6 million Nigeriens at risk of starvation, most of them children.

Some of the worst cases aren't necessarily in the big cities in Niger; they're in smaller, outlying villages such as Maradi, which lies about 400 miles east of the capital, Niamey.

Relief groups come to these villages and offer screening. Mothers bring their children. The worst cases are brought back to the city, back to the hospital.

At one village screening, however, the crowds are simply too big.

It's a bit overwhelming when you first come to such a center because there are just so many people, so many mothers who have brought their children.

Not all of them are starving. Not all of them are severely malnourished. In fact, some of them look pretty healthy. They're smiling. But they know that there's food here. They know there's medical care. So they bring their children looking for help.

The village elders are trying to restore some semblance of order, but they're not having much luck. There are just too many people trying to get food for their kids.

The relief workers are going to cancel the program in this village for today because it's impossible to screen out the most-needy. They say they hope they're going to be able to come back the next day.

A few miles away, Medecins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, is able to screen other children. They're weighed and measured. Some immediately receive milk. The worst cases wind up in the hospital.

It's not known how many children have died in Niger because of this year's severe food shortage, but relief agencies say there have been thousands.

Their deaths don't make headlines. Only their parents remember their names.

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