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One in a Million; One Million Too Many

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This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

In trying to make sense of the senseless world around us, we can talk ourselves in circles about cycles. Cycles of violence. Cycles of poverty. Giving the impression we understand them and are searching for a way to break them.

Then there are weather cycles, crop cycles, food production cycles -- and cycles of starvation so overwhelming that they almost break us.

The Sahel region of West Africa (Niger, Chad, Mali, Nigeria and others) is stuck in a devastating cycle of "food insecurity," facing its third drought in a decade. Here, a tragic history is repeating itself, denying over 18.7 million people in the region sufficient access to food. Here, the future hangs in the balance, denying countless children the chance to grow up healthy -- or at all.

Over 1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from malnutrition in the Sahel.

One of those is Aziza, a 3-and-a-half-year-old Sudanese refugee in Kounuongou camp in eastern Chad. At just 28 inches tall and 11 pounds, Aziza is medically labeled "severely acutely malnourished." But I try to wrap my mind around this in terms I can understand: Aziza is the weight of my close friend's newborn baby.

An International Medical Corps nutrition team, going door-to-door in Chad screening children for acute malnutrition, found Aziza suffering from septic shock due to an upper respiratory tract infection and dehydration, putting her at high risk of death. The team transferred her to an International Medical Corps-supported stabilization center at Guereda Hospital, where she is currently being treated. They expect Aziza to be stabilized and entered into International Medical Corps' outpatient therapeutic program in the next couple of weeks, where she can be provided with ready-to-use therapeutic foods that her parents can give her at home.

There's relief in knowing Aziza is being cared for by International Medical Corps, but I feel unsettled nonetheless. The team sent me a photo of Aziza in a state of starvation too graphic for posting online. They see many children like her. I, on the other hand, struggle with this one photo of this one child -- one out of 1 million.

Aziza's family fled violence in Darfur only to end up in neighboring Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world, where crop production has dropped 49 percent since 2010. In a family of six children, Aziza is described by her mother as the "very shy" one. But, I think, that's probably a consequence of her frailty. Imagine making it out of a brutal war alive and having to fight for your life all over again just because there's not enough to eat.

Children like Aziza who suffer from both acute and chronic malnutrition fail to grow to their full potential, both mentally and physically. The critical window for a child's optimal physical growth and mental development is from pregnancy to age two (the so-called "1000 days"). Efforts to intervene during this period to counter the effects of malnutrition can reverse the harm it causes, but if the opportunity is missed, the child will be adversely affected for the rest of his or her life. No doubt, impairing the long-term development of individuals also stunts entire communities and nations.

So there's Aziza -- and there are the millions like Aziza, across the Sahel and beyond. Still, she's one we reached today. There will be more tomorrow.

Working in refugee camps, villages for internally displaced persons (IDPs), and local communities in Chad, International Medical Corps reaches an estimated 95,000 Darfurians -- approximately 25 percent of the total refugee population -- and 200,000 Chadians through its critical health care and nutrition programs. International Medical Corps' services to refugees, IDPs and local populations in Chad include: primary and secondary health care, maternal and child care, immunizations, nutritional screenings, interventions for treatment and prevention of malnutrition, health and nutrition promotion, HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention, and sexual and gender-based violence and prevention. For more information visit: www.InternationalMedicalCorps.org. Also see us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.