A Little Word on Malnutrition

I've just started a new quarter at school and I was lucky enough to get in the coolest class ever - seriously! I'm taking a class called 'Humanitarian Aid and Politics' and it explores the history of humanitarianism and aid organizations, how they currently function in today's world, and how politics plays an important role. It isn't just the class that I lucked out on, but also my professor. My professor went on 10 missions (mostly to Africa) with Doctors Without Borders and is basically living the life I want to live. I really don't think I could ask for a class more geared toward me! It has only been 4 weeks in the class and I've already learned so much about humanitarian issues and the aid world. The topic we've been discussing most recently has been famine and malnutrition. What we recently learned more about were the two types of malnutrition and how they are caused. I always knew that malnutrition produced different effects in different people, but I never knew that there were in fact two different forms of malnutrition.

We've all seen the stereotypical images of the children in Africa with the swollen bellies - this is Kwashiorkor malnutrition. Kwashiorkor malnutrition results from inadequate micro-nutrient and protein intake. People who suffer from Kwashiorkor often have discoloration in their hair pigments which usually turns their hair reddish-brown. Along with the belly and the discolored hair, they usually has have dry and pale skin. Kwashiorkor malnutrition often doesn't look like typical malnutrition because stomachs can look full as a result of the distended stomachs, but it is important to remember that that is a result from the protein deficiency. While I was in the village of Njagbeima in Sierra Leone, there were a lot of children suffering from Kwashiorkor malnutrition which was evident in their distended stomachs and discolored hair. 
A Girl in Sierra Leone with Symptoms of Kwashiorkor Malnutrition

The second form of malnutrition is marasmus which is what usually comes to mind when people think of malnutrition. Marasmus, which is characterized by a skeletal-like body, is the result of a lack of protein and calories. Marasmus usually occurs in small children (especially under the age of one) and in severe famine-striken areas where access to food is extremely limited. 
A Child Suffering From Marasmus in Kenya (Source: WFP)
A Double Standard in Food Aid
Estimates from UNICEF suggest that around 195 children are suffering from malnutrition around the globe - this causes 1/3 of the 8 million deaths of children five and under every year. This is a problem that is often observed but never addressed. Food organizations, in a rush for a quick fix, usually deliver food aid to malnutrition hot-spots that lacks essential nutrients needed for children to grow healthily. Most food programs are currently distributing a mix of corn and soy, which stops the child's hunger but still lacks another 40 vital ingredients that are needed for the child to develop properly. Simply ending the hunger does not do enough. The issue of growth and development need to be taken into account when delivering food aid. To learn more about malnutrition and to do something about it, take a look at Doctors Without Borders' campaign Starved For Attention which calls attention to the substandard food that many governments and aid agencies are delivering. Get informed on the issue, hear stories from people suffering worldwide from malnutrition, and take a stand by signing the petition.

A Final Word on Malnutrition 
The World Food Programme map below does a great job at showing where malnutrition is the biggest problem. According to the World Food Programme, there is just under 1 billion malnourished people in the world which is the population of the US and Europe combined (however this number is better than 1 billion+ malnourished that were in the world a year ago!). It is clear from the map that 98% of the world's hunger reside in developing nations - 65% of the world's hungry are from India, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ethiopia.

Map of the World's Hungry (Source: WFP)
I hope this was able to clarify the types of malnutrition a bit more for those who didn't know. I know that we all know malnutrition exists, but I think we all forget about its severity since we hear about it so often. As I learn more about humanitarian issues in my class, I'll be sharing them more on here - so look forward to some good stuff coming up!


  1. Anonymous30.1.11

    Hi Karen! Sounds like a wonderful class :) Do you need to read any literature, and if so, can you give me a title or author? xx Jax

  2. Hey! We are currently reading two books. One is called 'A bed for the Night' by David Rieff and it is a history of Humanitarianism. The other is 'Famine Crimes' by Alex De Waal.
    We also have a series of articles and short publications which we have to read on various topics ranging from famine to refugees. If you are interested in those I could give you the names of those too!

  3. Anonymous31.1.11

    Thanks Karen, this sounds great already! I so need to hit the books and also read about American politics. :D xx

  4. I was so sad to see this picture. I wish we can fight the malnutrition in kids.



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