By Kieran Guilbert
DAKAR, Oct 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tens of thousands of children in Mali are prey to life-threatening malnutrition as violence and displacement fuel a deepening nutrition crisis in the West African nation, the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF) said on Monday.
About 165,000 children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition across Mali next year - up from an estimated total of 142,000 during this year - according to UNICEF.
Those who suffer from the severe form of acute malnutrition see their muscles waste away, have very low weight for their height, and are nine times more likely to die in case of disease - such as diarrhea or malaria - due to a weakened immune system.
The rates of global acute malnutrition, the less threatening form, among children in the conflict-hit northern areas of Gao and Timbuktu have risen this year to above 15 percent, exceeding the emergency threshold set by the World Health Organisation.
At least a tenth of children across Mali are suffering from global acute malnutrition, according to new government data.
"Behind these figures are the lives of the most vulnerable and forgotten girls and boys in Mali," UNICEF representative Lucia Elmi said in a statement after the data was published.
"We must provide life-saving treatment and ensure each and every one of these children can fully recover," Elmi added.
Violence in northern Mali has uprooted tens of thousands of people, disrupted health services and hindered access to water and sanitation, leaving even more children at risk, UNICEF said.
French troops and U.N. peacekeepers have been battling to stabilise Mali, a former French colony, ever since France intervened in 2013 to push back jihadists and allied Tuareg rebels who took over the country's desert north in 2012.
"Efforts need to be intensified to build the resilience of families through improved food security, prevention and treatment of severe acute malnutrition, access to water and sanitation," said Noël Zagré, a nutrition advisor with UNICEF.
Children must be closely monitored during their first three years of life - with families ensuring they are exclusively breastfed for the first six months and handwashing with clean water and soap - to prevent malnutrition, according to UNICEF.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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