Yukoner wages war on malnutrition

Last January in Niger, two French aid workers were kidnapped and killed by al-Qaeda. But for Trish Newport, who was in the country at the time, the most memorable moment was watching a three-year-old girl walk for the first time.

Last January in Niger, two French aid workers were kidnapped and killed by al-Qaeda.

But for Trish Newport, who was in the country at the time, the most memorable moment was watching a three-year-old girl walk for the first time.

Newport was working as a nurse in Niger with Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF.

She’s lived in the Yukon for 11 years and considers it her home.

But lately she’s been spending more time in Africa than the Klondike.

Her first mission with MSF was in 2009, when she spent six months in Djibouti.

She came home for five months and then went to the Congo for seven months.

After another short break, Newport requested work in Niger.

The landlocked, West African country consistently ranks among the bottom of the United Nation’s Human Development Index, and has some of the worst malnutrition in the world.

For a self-described “malnutrition geek” like Newport, there could be no better place to try to make a difference.

Newport began working in a malnutrition hospital for children under five years old.

But don’t imagine a large, sterile building. The “hospital” was just a collection of wall tents containing 350 beds.

Newport arrived in November, which is usually the time of year when rates of malnutrition have peaked and started to decline.

However, 280 of the beds were filled with malnourished kids.

One of them was a three-year-old girl named Zara.

Zara was suffering from tuberculosis and severe malnutrition.

When she arrived, she weighed just 15 pounds.

“She was full-on emaciated,” said Newport, who is back home for the summer.

“I thought I’d seen malnutrition, but I’d never seen malnutrition.”

Despite being near death, with a large distended stomach, Newport frequently described the little girl as “gorgeous.”

When Zara’s grandmother brought her to the malnutrition hospital, she was so weak that she couldn’t even lift her head to be fed.

“We had to tube feed her therapeutic milk because she couldn’t feed herself,” said Newport.

“She literally just laid there on the bed.”

And then, after a few weeks of therapeutic food, Zara gained a few grams and began to smile.

“She had the most beautiful eyes,” said Newport, smiling herself at the memory.

As Zara began to gain strength, she learned to wave and began waving at anyone who happened by.

When the two French aid workers were kidnapped and killed, it sent panic through the entire humanitarian community.

The restaurant that the men were sitting in when they were grabbed was on the same block as MSF headquarters.

Many western organizations immediately pulled out their aid workers. Those that didn’t, put their workers under tight security.

“It got to the point that I was really wondering about the benefits of us being there,” said Newport.

“Then I went to the hospital and saw Zara, taking the first steps of her life because she’d finally gained enough weight.

“And I thought, man, there’s risk in being here and there’s risk in not being here too.”

The organization ended up transferring Newport shortly thereafter.

She was being sent to a pilot project near the Nigerian border.

Instead of treating children like Zara at the hospital, many of whom come to be treated each and every year, Newport would be working in a region to try to prevent malnutrition in the first place.

Newport enlisted the power of a local monarch, who was more than happy to pitch in and leant his Minister of War to the cause.

Together with the minister, she waged war on malnutrition by donating supplies, training local nurses and holding community workshops.

In each of these workshops, Newport would try to involve as many important local people as possible.

She invited the nurses at the village health posts as well as the traditional healers in the area, known as marabouts.

She also searched out one influential woman and young person from each village.

In these workshops, the community tackled the health problems in the area.

And there were some very severe problems.

One health post, the people told Newport matter-of-factly, was haunted by the devil.

To make matters worse, the devil would sometimes take the shape of the health nurse.

Because of this, no one was using the health post. And no one was receiving the medicine that Newport had brought with her.

The community decided to perform an exorcism, and set up guards to keep the devil from coming back.

Another surprising problem was that the local people didn’t know how to use the latrines that had been set up, to try to prevent cholera epidemics.

The people were used to doing their business on the ground, and felt strange about squatting over a hole.

People would go in the latrines, as they were instructed, but would go anywhere but in the hole.

Basic education programs like how to use a latrine often have more benefit than other forms of medicine and aid, said Newport.

A big solution to child malnutrition for example is as simple as breastfeeding.

Children should receive only breast milk for the first six months, according to the World Health Organization.

However, many communities have come to believe that breastfeeding is bad for children and that they need water – feeding children water from puddles when there’s nothing else.

This often leads to illness and even worse malnutrition.

Just before Newport left in May, crops were looking flush and the outlook was good.

But then, as happens so often in Niger, disaster struck.

A swarm of locusts and crickets arrived and decimated the food.

“The people were devastated, they don’t even have seeds for next year,” she said.

Newport did what she could to get food aid and seeds sent to the area. But by the time she had to leave, the situation was not looking good.

Newport hopes to head back to Niger in the fall.

While about three-quarters of the doctors and nurses who work for MSF go only once, there are others like Newport.

“Some of us just become suckers for punishment,” she said.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, it’s why I became a nurse.”

Contact Chris Oke at