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A Tragedy of Great Magnitude

A Tragedy of Great Magnitude

 A Tragedy of Great Magnitude

Erik * is six months old. However, his weight and height are barely those of a one- or two-month-old baby. Despite being so underweight, his legs and stomach are swollen and his face is bloated and round. He is pale, his hair is brittle and dull, and he has lesions on his skin. He seems extremely irritable. As the doctor examines Erik’s eyes, he must be very careful, since the eye tissue could tear easily. Erik’s mental development has likely been hampered. Sadly, this child’s situation is far from unique.

“IT IS implicated in more than half of all child deaths worldwide​—a proportion unmatched by any infectious disease since the Black Death. Yet, it is not an infectious disease. Its ravages extend to the millions of survivors who are left crippled, chronically vulnerable to illness, and intellectually disabled. It imperils women, families and, ultimately, the viability of whole societies.”​—The State of the World’s Children, United Nations Children’s Fund.

What ailment do those words describe? Malnutrition​—in particular, protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), which the World Health Organization (WHO) has called “the silent emergency.” What is the magnitude of this tragedy? WHO declares that it “is an accomplice in at least half of the 10.4 million child deaths each year.”

Malnutrition covers a wide range of illnesses, from  undernourishment due to a lack of one or more nutrients​—such as vitamin and mineral deficiencies—​to obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases. However, PEM “is by far the most lethal form of malnutrition,” states WHO. Its principal victims are children under five years of age.

Think for a moment about Erik, mentioned at the outset, and of the millions of children who suffer from malnutrition. They are not to blame for being in that condition, nor are they able to escape it. Pediatric nutritionist Georgina Toussaint told Awake!: “Those who suffer and pay are the least to blame yet the most vulnerable.”

Some might assume that the problem is inevitable​—that there is simply not enough food for all. Paradoxically, according to WHO, “we live today in a world of abundance.” There is enough food for all the humans on earth​—and more. Further, human malnutrition is the easiest illness to prevent and the cheapest to cure. Do not these facts make you feel indignant?

 Who Is Affected?

Malnutrition is not limited to children. According to a WHO report of July 2001, “malnutrition casts long shadows, affecting close to 800 million people​—20% of all people in the developing world.” This means that 1 out of every 8 people in the world suffers from it.

While the largest number of undernourished people are found in Asia​—mainly in the southern and central zones—​the population with the highest percentage of undernourished people is in Africa. Some developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are next on the list.

Are developed countries free from malnutrition? No. According to The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2001, 11 million people who live in industrialized countries suffer from malnutrition. An additional 27 million undernourished people live in what are called transitional countries, especially ones in Eastern Europe and republics of the former Soviet Union.

Why has malnutrition become such a serious problem? Is there anything that can improve the condition of the undernourished right now? Will our planet ever be free from malnutrition? The following articles will address these questions.


^ par. 2 Not his real name.

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Waiting for relief supplies in Sudan

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UN/DPI Photo by Eskinder Debebe