Why do starving people keep having babies?

Famine, food crisis, malnutrition - what is it?

Adut is too weak to stand or run alone. After a malaria infection, the 14-month-old girl is tired and weak. When her mother Angelina takes her to a nutrition center in South Sudan, it is immediately clear: Adut is life-threateningly malnourished. In South Sudan alone, according to UNICEF estimates, over 290,000 severely acutely malnourished children are currently struggling to survive.

Adut in the arms of her older sister Lydia (12), her mother Angelina in the background. Adut (14 months) is life-threatening malnutrition.

© UNICEF / UN0344869 / Wilson

Hundreds of thousands of people are starving in other countries too, such as Somalia, Yemen or the Central African Republic. Pictures of emaciated children close to starvation, reports of girls and boys who have starved to death are repeatedly in the news and on social media.

Nevertheless, there is currently no official famine in any country in the world - why? To understand this, you first have to explain the terms.

Hunger and Famine: Terms and Backgrounds

When do we speak of a famine?

In everyday life we ​​speak of "famine" when there is a severe food shortage in a region and many people have nothing to eat. But officially a famine is declared by the United Nations or the respective government of a country according to certain criteria.

The basis for this is the assessment of an international working group based on the so-called "IPC phases", which collects extensive data for this purpose. IPC stands for "Integrated Food Security Phase Classification". Five levels are distinguished on this food security scale, from phase one "minimal" to "stressed", "crisis", "emergency" and phase five "famine" (Famine ) pass.

In phase five - famine - at least every fifth household is almost completely lacking food and / or other essential items such as drinking water. Large numbers of people are starving, malnourished and dying (at least two people per 100,000 inhabitants every day). The criteria also include that more than 30 percent of children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition.

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Yemen: Ali is twelve years old and weighs just under 15 kilos. He is examined and treated for malnutrition at the hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen.

© UNICEF / UN0253355 / Huwais
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A malnourished girl is given therapeutic food at the Sanaa hospital. The fortified peanut paste can be eaten straight from the packet.

© UNICEF / UN0253492 / Huwais
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Monira (3) has recovered from the therapeutic treatment and is back home.

© UNICEF Yemen / 2018 / Al-Awami

That sounds very technical now and it is, but there are reasons for it: In this way there should be objective criteria that are internationally comparable so that no one uses the declaration of a famine for political purposes, for example. The difficulty, however, is to get reliable information from all regions in a civil war country like Yemen.

Even without officially declaring a famine, children are therefore in great danger: Numerous girls and boys die every day because their bodies no longer have any resistance. Others suffer permanent damage from malnutrition and lag behind in their development.

Unfortunately, it is often the case that a crisis only receives the necessary attention from governments, the media and donors when a famine is declared - when it is already too late for many children. In the devastating hunger crisis in Somalia in 2011, around half of the children died of the consequences of their malnutrition even before the official declaration of famine. There are ways and means to save these children.

The continuous emergency aid from UNICEF in case of famine, e.g. This is precisely why it is so important, for example in Yemen, South Sudan or the Central African Republic - even if these crises are not in the light of the global public. You can enable this help.

Donations against hunger in Africa

2100 sachets of micronutrient powder
300 packets of peanut paste against malnutrition
eight baby scales for weight control

When is a child considered malnourished?

In general, nutrition experts differentiate between chronic (long-term) and acute malnutrition.

As acutely malnourished apply to children whose body weight is less than 80 percent of the weight appropriate for their age. If the weight is less than 70 percent, one speaks of severe acute malnutrition.

Farhan, a four-month-old boy, is being treated in a children's hospital in Pakistan. Farhan is completely emaciated.

© UNICEF / UN048364 / Pirozzi

Malnutrition is caused by a chronic lack of food, but also of vitamins and essential trace elements. Malnutrition has far-reaching consequences. Because digestion is impaired, children can no longer eat normally. Food is not properly absorbed by the body. As a result, the children get weaker and weaker at a certain point. Malnourished children are more prone to diseases such as diarrhea, measles, and pneumonia.

Frequent illness, on the other hand, wears out your body - a vicious circle. The risk of dying a severely malnourished child is nine times that of a healthy child.

Also "moderate", chronic malnutrition can have serious consequences: If they are permanently lacking important nutrients, the children cannot develop properly and their entire mental and physical development is damaged.

How many children worldwide are hungry?

According to current estimates by UNICEF, the World Food Program and other United Nations organizations, around 690 million people worldwide did not have enough to eat in 2019. 47 million children under five (almost seven percent) are emaciated (English: "wasted"), so too light for their height. An additional 144 million girls and boys are underdeveloped ("stunted") due to chronic malnutrition, i.e. too small for their age.

At the same time, the number of overweight children is increasing worldwide: in 2019, more than 38 million children under the age of five were overweight. Overweight is also a result of malnutrition and has negative effects on a child's development.

Why is there hunger - still?

I often ask myself this question. The global community has long been committed to ending extreme poverty and hunger, but in recent years the number of people going hungry has even increased again. How can it be that despite all the advances and technologies we have still not managed to secure this fundamental right to food and survival for all human beings?

Children at lunch in kindergarten in the Congo.

© UNICEF / UN0315970 / Pirozzi

What are the causes of a famine?

The causes of a famine or hunger crisis are very complex, which means that several factors often come together. Natural events such as droughts or floods or natural disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons often play a role in destroying crops. But also poverty and social inequality, conflicts and flight as well as the consequences of the corona crisis can lead to hunger individually or in combination.

Because of a drought in Ethiopia, Abdi’s family (20 months) has lost their cattle and is looking for help in neighboring Somalia.

© UNICEF / UN057377 / Holt

Natural disasters as a cause of hunger

Natural disasters, partly caused or intensified by climate change, can exacerbate world hunger. For example in Zambia, where there is a drought. Rivers and wells are drying up and drinking water is becoming scarce. The harvest withers, the cattle die. Small farmers in particular lose their livelihood as a result. Families have nothing to eat and the number of children who go to bed hungry every night is increasing.

In Mozambique, the devastating cyclones Idai and Kenneth and the subsequent floods destroyed the livelihoods of many families. As a result, they became impoverished and can no longer afford to eat enough.

In East Africa and South Asia, people are fighting another natural disaster: locusts. Millions of small insects devour fields and pastures in a matter of seconds. A swarm can destroy food for 35,000 people in just one day.

Social inequality as a cause of hunger

Poverty is both the cause and the result of hunger and other forms of malnutrition. In other words: poor children are more likely to be hungry or poorly nourished and thus underdeveloped (or overweight).

Poverty creates social inequality. Malnourished children are at high risk of dying or of lagging behind in their physical and mental development. They can often not make up for that in later life. As a result, they have poorer chances of finding well-paid work, for example, and pass on their poverty to the next generation. Only if we succeed in breaking this cycle can hunger be a thing of the past as soon as possible.

Economic crises and the corona crisis with its consequences also mean that many people lose their jobs and at the same time food prices and the prices of other essential things such as medicines rise dramatically - food often becomes unaffordable for poor families.

Wars and conflicts as causes of hunger

In a civil war or armed conflict, entire families are brutally driven from their fields, their jobs and their homes. It is not uncommon for the main breadwinner to be killed, families are torn apart and can no longer earn a living without help.

Many parents in conflict regions have difficulties in finding and paying for enough food for their children. The children are quickly and acutely threatened with malnutrition.

Help for starving children

How can you save children from starvation?

The good news is that if acute malnutrition is identified and treated in good time, the children have a very good chance of surviving and getting well again. In crisis situations, UNICEF ensures that the nutritional status of as many children as possible is checked - this is very easy, for example, by measuring the circumference of the upper arm with a tape measure. If the measuring tape shows red, the child must be treated immediately.

The circumference of the upper arm of malnourished Fanne Saleh, 1, is measured in a health center in northeastern Nigeria supported by UNICEF.

© UNICEF / UN028417 / Esiebo

For this purpose, UNICEF successfully uses therapeutic special food, especially fortified special milk and packets with very energy-rich peanut paste. Most children feel much better after just a few days.

What is special therapeutic food?

The therapeutic special food is composed in such a way that severely malnourished children can eat, swallow and digest it even when they are extremely emaciated. It also contains essential vitamins and minerals so that the children can regain their strength.

A baby in the north of Afghanistan is given special therapeutic milk. Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of chronically malnourished children in the world.

© UNICEF / UN0339425 // Frank Dejongh

Very young and very debilitated children are given special therapeutic milk that is administered in small portions through a nasal tube or with a spoon. Some children have to be treated for diarrhea or malaria at the same time.

When the children feel a little better, they are given a fortified peanut paste. The peanut paste is packaged in small portions, has a long shelf life and can be fed straight from the packet. If the children are not in critical condition, parents can take the parcels home from the feeding center and care for their children at home.

The malnourished girls and boys usually receive the therapeutic special food for a few weeks until their weight has stabilized. During this time, they will continue to receive regular medical examinations.

The peanut paste is packaged in small portions, has a long shelf life and can be fed straight from the packet.

© UNICEF / UN034405 / Rich

Additional therapeutic food should only be used in cases of severe malnutrition. It is a treatment for severely debilitated children and not a substitute for a healthy diet.

Does this help bring anything at all?

Yes, the help brings a lot! It is frustrating that the 21st century has still not succeeded in ending global hunger. The current crises are primarily made by humans: In Yemen, Somalia, the Central African Republic and South Sudan, conflicts and violence have exacerbated the already difficult situation of the poorest families because, for example, they could not till their fields because it made imports difficult and food prices have risen dramatically. Because of the security situation, employees of aid organizations often do not have access to all people in need.

Nutrition expert Aishat Abdullahi examines the seven-month-old Umara, who is severely malnourished. He is given therapeutic nutrition to help him gain weight again.

© UNICEF / UN041140 / Vittozzi

The climate crisis means that natural disasters such as droughts, floods and hurricanes occur more and more frequently, especially in developing countries. The countries that are currently suffering the most from climate change are those that are contributing the least to its aggravation.

The children cannot help these crises - we must do everything we can to prevent a disaster like the one in 2011 in the Horn of Africa from happening again. And we are already doing a lot: between January and October 2020 alone, over 167,000 life-threatening malnourished children in South Sudan and 160,000 children in Yemen were treated with special therapeutic food.

Adut, whom I mentioned at the beginning of the article, was also treated with peanut paste for malnutrition in South Sudan. My colleagues on site visited her regularly: in weeks one, five and eight of the treatment and again six months later. Read and see Adut's way out of malnutrition here.

UNICEF nutrition expert Jesca Wude Murye visits Adut at home: After eight weeks of treatment, the girl has fully recovered.

© UNICEF / UN0344940 / Wilson

Success stories like Adut's give confidence. At the same time, long-term aid must continue to better protect the children from future crises. By the way, did you know that global child mortality has more than halved in the past 20 years? Comprehensive vaccinations and the use of additional therapeutic food have contributed to this. So there are also successes on which we can build.

How can I help with a hunger crisis or famine?

Even small amounts can help save lives: Treating a severely malnourished child with peanut paste costs around 29 euros per month. Every contribution counts!

The next days and weeks will determine the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. Please help! You can donate once or as a UNICEF sponsor permanently help wherever the children are in dire need. Thanks!

* This article first appeared earlier. We regularly update it for you with new figures.