By S.K. RAM
Pictures of emaciated children lying listlessly and dying a lingering death due to severe malnutrition in the horn of Africa have triggered strong thought provoking reactions from TV viewers.
Children living a comfortable life and having three meals a day would never have imagined that dire situations of hunger and famine are current in some poor countries.
UNICEF reports that poverty is the main cause of hunger in children. “Every 3.6 second one person dies of starvation. Usually it is a child under the age of 5.”
Production of food to meet the demands of a population is not the only factor that determines food security. The Malthusian theory associating population growth and food production has given rise to many debates.
At the World Food Summit held in Rome in 1996 food security was defined as “a state when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs for an active and healthy life.”
Worldwide under nutrition is one of the commonest causes of childhood diseases. One out of four children in developing countries is underweight.
Sound nutrition starts before birth in the mother’s womb and continues with breast feeding of the baby after delivery. The foetus of a malnourished mother will suffer from intrauterine growth retardation, which may affect his development after birth. All health care personnel are given instructions to lay special emphasis on the numerous advantages of breast-feeding.
In countries where safe water is not available, reconstituted cow’s milk can cause widespread epidemics of infantile diarrhea that may prove fatal. Breast milk is nature’s gift to the newborn. It is readily available and is produced, delivered and consumed on the spot without the inconvenience of handling charges.
Malnutrition affects the physical, mental and emotional development of the child. It also has consequences on learning abilities and behaviour. The period of rapid growth rate which occurs in the first year of life is a crucial one for his overall development. Children who are subjected to long periods of undernourishment may never have a full catch-up of their growth and will be stunted. Infectious diseases in children are often associated with malnutrition, a condition that can only be prevented by providing adequate calories in the form of a well balanced diet that includes proteins, fats, vitamins and micronutrients.
Iodine deficiency is a major primary cause of brain damage and mental retardation. A low level of vitamin A may lead to defective vision and affect pre-school children. Under-nutrition in the early weeks of life may result in significant changes in the brain that may later lead to retardation of development. Adequate intake of food is needed to support the spurt in height and body mass in the adolescent. Food insecurity is one of the main causes that may prevent a child from leading a healthy and productive life in adulthood.
My contemporaries may still recall the commendable political decision taken by the government of the post-independence years to distribute milk, bread and cheese to primary school children. This has contributed to eliminate severe malnutrition in Mauritian children.
The FAO is exploring other possibilities to combat malnutrition. Ancient traditional eating habits in the poorest African, Asian and South American countries are also being investigated to alleviate hunger. New scientific methods are being developed so as to cultivate wild edible plants.
In 2010, the FAO published a report on the theme “Forests insects as food”. Insects as a traditional food item have been consumed in many countries for millennia. Insect farming could provide food rich in high quality protein, fats and trace elements to feed poor populations.
The burden of undernourishment will not be alleviated and will remain pervasive in parts of Africa if urgent action is not taken to eradicate food insecurity in the poorest countries.
This should be one of the priorities of all government and NGOs.
* Published in print edition on 2 December 2011