That’s the number of undernourished people estimated by the United Nations, and that’s a lot. We have made great progress to reduce hunger in the last decades, however there is still space for progress.
The Millenium goal for development running from 1990 to 2015 significantly reduced extreme poverty. In 1990, 47% of the world population was living in extreme poverty, about half the world population. In 2015, 25 years later, this number was reduced down to 14%.
This progress also came with improvement in other Millenium goal components such as education, gender equality, maternal health… General ameliorations in all these areas participated in reducing this number.
To further decrease the number of people living in extreme poverty, the United Nations have defined new goals for 2030. The two first goals go straightforward and ambition to “end poverty” and “end hunger”. I am personally really optimistic about our capacity to achieve these.
“By 2030 nobody will live in extreme poverty anywhere in the world”
Undernourishment in the developed world has been a problem for years already so now we know how to assess it and reduce it.
Spotting undernourished children is not as easy as it seems.
Of course extremely skinny children are often undernourished, however undernourished children are not always extremely skinny, they can even look fat.
In extreme hunger, children can develop Kwashiorkor symptoms. Kwashiorkor is an advanced state of malnutrition where children have oedemas on the feet, legs and arms. These oedemas make them look fat even if they are not. Physiological liquids go into spaces below the skin and create oedemas inflating the child’s limbs. In this case, pressing the child foot and then observing a hole indicates the presence of oedemas and therefore undernourishment.
Children can look normal, not skinny, and be undernourished. In this case they can be smaller than their age and suffer from stunting. Stunting happens in chronic undernourishment when the child doesn’t eat enough food to grow normally. Stunting can be spotted by comparing the weight and height of the child to his age normal values on the “road to health” chart.
The “road to health” chart is a great innovation developed in the 60’s. This chart is a basic graph where the growth of a child can be easily monitored by non specialists. Practitioners in poor areas simply check the child’s age, height and weight, and then draw a point on the chart. If the point lays in the “healthy” area of the chart, everything is fine however if it’s below, the child is undernourished.
Undernourished children are spotted thanks to this easy monitoring tool. Then it’s possible to treat them with extra enriched food.
Special enriched and easy to conserve food have been developed to treat undernourished children. Milk based formula such as F-100 and F-75 enriched in oil, sugar and proteins are used to help children recover from undernourishment and ensure them to get the right daily amount of nutrients they need to grow well.
Another formula called ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) has been recently created by a nutritionist from the French International Organization for Research and Development (IRD) and is based on peanut butter. This formula doesn’t need to be mixed with water like F-75 and F-100. This is a great advantage since water is often vector of diseases. Clean water is not always available in developing countries.
This basic treatment as well as a close monitoring from medical staff can save thousands of children from undernourishment every year. International organization like the World Health Organization often publish global guidelines and recommendations in various languages to assist on-field medical staff. (available here)
Undernourishment in developing countries is important to solve because it directly decreases the productivity and economic growth of these countries. An undernourished child is not only physically weaker but his psychological abilities can be affected and thus his school performance reduced. Consequently he has less chance to go to college and get a skilled job. At the scale of a country, human capital is strongly affected by undernourishment and development is slowed down. A close monitoring of the child nutrition status is a good start to break this vicious cycle.
Solving undernourishment in developing countries is a wide problem involving other factors such as hygiene and health. Sick people have more difficulties to eat or digest, for example children with diarrhea eat less because of stomachache and inconvenience. Bringing simple hygienic tools to these people such as restroom can avoid the spread of diseases and parasites. Toilets can really improve people’s health and thus their nutrition status.
“Poverty is the deadliest disease”
Halting undernourishment and poverty include solving all other hygiene and sanitation issues, that’s why the sustainable development goals for 2030 include health improvement and water sanitation in the 3rd and 6th goal.
We need a holistic view on people development, bringing skills and expertise from all fields together to solve problems and help the most fragiles.
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