"In the crowd of riotously dressed mothers clasping wailing, naked infants at a Médecins Sans Frontières feeding center just west of here, Taorey Asama, at 27 months old, stands out for a heart-rending reason: She looks like a normal baby.
Many of the others have the skeletal frames and baggy skin of children with severe malnutrition. The good news is that a month ago, so did Taorey.
'When she came here, she was all small and curled up,' said her mother, Henda, 30. 'It's Plumpy'nut that's made her like this. She's immense!'
Never heard of Plumpy'nut? Come to Maradi, a bustling crossroads where the number of malnourished children exceeds even the flocks of motor scooters flitting down its dirt streets. At this epicenter of Niger's latest hunger crisis, Plumpy'nut is saving lives.
Plumpy'nut, which comes in a silvery foil package the size of two grasping baby-size hands, is 500 calories of fortified peanut butter, a beige paste about as thick as mashed potatoes and stuffed with milk, vitamins and minerals...
...Milton Tectonidis, a nutrition specialist for Médecins Sans Frontières, said this about Plumpy'nut in an interview here: 'This product, it's beyond opinion; it's documented; it's scientific fact. We've seen it working. With this one product, we can treat three-quarters of children on an outpatient basis.'
Traditional malnutrition therapy hospitalizes children, nursing them to health with steady infusions of vitamin-laced milk. Then they are sent home with powdered milk formula to complete their recovery. It works well, but milk is costly, must be mixed with water and is prone to spoil. And when mothers prepare the formula with the dirty water all too common in impoverished villages, babies get sick. In comparison, Plumpy'nut - the name melds the words 'plump' and 'peanut' - costs less than the milk formula, has a two-year shelf life and need not be mixed with anything.
Perhaps most revolutionary is that mothers, not doctors, can give it to their toddlers. That not only reduces costs but also frees the doctors to attend to the sickest children, who often suffer from malnutrition as well as diseases like malaria or dysentery. The usual course of treatment is four weeks of Plumpy'nut, costing about $20, along with grain-based food like Unimix, a vitamin-packed flour that can be made into the porridge many Africans eat. But some children return to health in as little as two weeks."