Children under five years of age are especially threatened by the consequences of malnutrition. Photo: humedica/Katja Weber
BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE: Disease patterns
Every year, 3.1 million children die as a result of malnutrition. These are shocking statistics. This number is so high that we cannot even imagine it. Some studies or headlines are insinuating that this number could be almost divided in half by taking some simple measures.
But what is malnutrition really? Is it really the only lack of food that claims such an enormous toll of lives? Or do other circumstances play a role, too? In the context of our background reports about frequent disease patterns in Less Developed Countries we want to procure an overview of the vague term malnutrition.
For a start, in order to understand the vague term malnutrition, we will have to explain some different technical terms. In general, malnutrition means unbalanced or insufficient nutrition.
If a person doesn’t ingest enough calories, we call this quantitative malnutrition or under-nutrition. If the ingested food lacks of essential ingredients like vitamins, minerals and oligo-elements, we call it qualitative malnutrition. If people shave uffered from malnutrition for a long time, without any rescue treatment either of both forms will provoke bad complications which may sometimes engender death.
It is easy to enumerate the reasons for malnutrition in Less Developed Countries: poverty and insufficient or lacking food are especially put forward when trying to explain the phenomenon. Especially children under five years of age, pregnant or nursing women, chronically sick persons and the elderly risk to get into the dangerous circle of malnutrition.
Insufficient and unbalanced nutrition lead to underweight and amyotrophia (loss of muscles), which will weaken the immune defense. The persons are more vulnerable to infections, they lose their appetite and weight and suffer from pains when chewing or swallowing which in return impedes new food intake. A fatal downward spiral.
There are simple possibilities to determine if a child is undernourished: if we put the weight in relation to the height, we call this wasting. Stunting means that we control the age and the correspondent height. The method underweight combines the other approaches as it regards the relation between the patient’s weight and age.
Another possibility to judge the nutritional situation of children under 3 years of age is the measuring of the child’s upper arm’s circumference. Depending on the results, we may detect moderate or serious malnutrition.
This must be treated. The concerned persons must be fed special food rich in energy and nutrients, as fast as possible. If the malnutrition has already reached a degree which impedes the persons to swallow or chew the food, the nutrients must be given by intravenous drip.
In this case, a special nutrient solution can be fed directly into the stomach or the small intestine through a tube passing by the patient’s nose or abdominal wall, thus ensuring that the patient will take weight quickly and boost his immune system.
Again and again, during their worldwide emergency measures, humedica staff have encountered extensive malnutrition which has obliged them to take action. Thus, in 2010, during famine in Niger, nine supply points could be built up and the people could be supplied with appropriate food.
At the Horn of Africa, the refugees of the serious drought in 2011 have been given relief until now. This help saved the people from sure starvation. humedica managing director Wolfgang Groß repeatedly visits regions in which people suffer from malnutrition. The experiences he made there are frightening:
“Until today, I can remember the famine in Somalia in 1993, when I held a child in my arms who had an old man’s face. This picture got engraved in my memory and it is still urging me to help children suffering from malnutrition or under-nutrition. Please help us to help them!”