4 questions about malnutrition

What is malnutrition?

The world's agricultural production would be enough to feed the entire population of the planet. So why is there malnutrition today? While inequalities in the distribution of resources and the impact of climate change play an important role, armed conflicts and political instability are the main causes of the biggest food crises in recent years. For example, the conflict in South Sudan has turned agricultural areas into war zones and caused an increase in food prices. More than half of the country's inhabitants are malnourished. Children are among the most vulnerable groups in these crises.

1. What is malnutrition? 

Contrary to popular belief, malnutrition does not only affect those who suffer from food shortages. It also covers industrialised countries in regions where there is an abundance of food. It can be caused by a lack of essential nutrients but also by inadequate nutrition. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), malnutrition is the consequence of undernourishment, leading to deficiencies or underweight, or of overweight, causing illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes.

2. What are the different types of malnutrition? 

There are two forms of malnutrition: acute and chronic. The first is most often deadly and develops due to a significant lack of quality food, diarrhoea or malaria. It can be severe or moderate depending on physical affect, such as oedema or general weight loss. Chronic malnutrition, as its name indicates, affects a person for a long period of time, for example because of a situation of persistent poverty.

3. What are the consequences of malnutrition on children? 

According to Unicef, nearly half of all deaths of children under five worldwide are due to malnutrition. “We are talking about the critical period of the child’s first 1000 days, from conception to two years of age. A severely malnourished mother will pass on these deficiencies to her baby and will be less able to take care of it,” explains Martin Morand, Tdh expert in emergency aid. “Even though death by starvation is rare, it can happen quickly to babies. It weakens the immune system and makes children very vulnerable to diseases such as cholera and measles.” Malnutrition can also cause irreversible damage to children like growth delays, cognitive impairment and blindness.

4. How can we fight malnutrition?

Prevention is better than cure. Ensuring food security, for example through urban agriculture, allows families without access to their land due to civil war to survive. When a food crisis occurs, dry rations distributions mitigate the effects on affected families.

But sometimes, emergency measures are needed to save malnourished children’s lives. For example, when thousands of Rohingya children fleeing out of Myanmar arrived severely malnourished in the camps of Bangladesh, the medical care for mothers and children, as well as rations of plumpy'nut, a highly nutritious paste, were part of the humanitarian aid given to families. At the same time, water purification and hygiene awareness raising contribute to the protection of children against illnesses and to the prevention of epidemics.

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Photo credit: ©Joergelman

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