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Health crisis looming with malnutrition rife in Africa

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Picture: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters Four-year-old Avoraza from Madagascar at a malnutrition post run by the World Food Programme. He was brought by his mother to collect sachets of a peanut-based product known as Plumpy, used to treat malnourished children.

By Kelly Jane Turner

Not only on the African continent but especially so, countries around the world are facing a multitude of humanitarian crises, including conflict, healthcare emergencies, climate change, extreme weather events, and rising international food and fuel prices.

As Edgar Sandoval, CEO of World Vision US, puts it, Africa is facing a “perfect storm of changing or unpredictable weather patterns and the aftershocks of Covid-19”.

While these humanitarian issues long predate the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, experts say it is clear that it has worsened the impact of pre-existing drivers of food insecurity, such as climate change and conflict.

Unicef Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Dr Felicité Tchibindat, said: “the continent is facing a series of challenging shocks from internal conflict, climate change and global food price rises”.

According to the WHO, over 80 million people in the eastern African region are food insecure and resort to desperate measures to feed themselves and their families.

“The situation is particularly urgent in the drought-affected areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia where a lack of food means that an estimated 7 million children are malnourished, including over 1.7 million, who are severely malnourished,” the health organisation said.

The African Union and Unicef have called for stronger commitments from African leaders to strengthen multi-sectoral nutrition investments and prevention.

In an effort to highlight this issue, the African Union (AU) has named 2022 the ‘’Year of Nutrition’’ for Africa.

Dr Yogan Pillay from the Department of Global Health at Stellenbosch University said that both hunger, malnutrition and obesity are on the rise in South Africa and on the continent.

“This is made worse by Covid-19 and now by rising prices of basic foods, a result of inflation, supply chain issues, shortage of grains from Ukraine.

“Reducing hunger, improving food security, reducing the stress of human consumption on the planet and growing the economy are not mutually exclusive but can and must be complementary activities,” he said.

Malnutrition develops when the body does not get enough of the essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs to function properly. It can occur when a person doesn’t eat enough food or if they aren’t eating enough healthy food.

Pillay says ways to combat these issues include increasing employment opportunities, promoting growing and consuming fresh fruit and vegetables, and reducing the amount of sugar and salt that we consume.

David Rizzi, Nutrition Expert for the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO)’s West Africa office, said that governments need to take a stronger leadership approach in supporting nutrition services.

“Under-nutrition is not purely a humanitarian matter. We count on governments to give every child the chance to survive and thrive. We have seen the impact of the Ukraine crisis and how advocacy at a high level can prevent millions of children slipping into malnutrition,” he said.

In an academic study with lead author Elias Militao from the Department of Biological Sciences at Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, researchers found that food insecurity (FI) continues to be one of the major causes of malnutrition in low and middle-income countries.

The study reviewed the evidence of the relationship between FI and health outcomes in a number of southern African countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana and Swaziland.

Food insecurity refers to the lack of nutritionally adequate food or the limited ability to acquire food in socially acceptable ways.

Researchers found that there was an association between FI and negative health outcomes in low and middle-income countries (LMICs).

“Food insecurity in this sub-region was associated with a number of factors, but poverty, illness, high food prices, dependency ratio, having three or more children, gender inequality, seasonality and food unavailability were consistently found to be the main drivers of FI.

“Furthermore, FI was associated with poor mental health, anxiety and depression, type II diabetes, hypertension, and increased risk of HIV acquisition,” according to the study.

FI can affect children and adults differently. In children, malnutrition has been associated with delayed development of motor skills, iron deficiency anaemia, and stunting.

In adults, FI has been associated with diabetes, hypertension anxiety, and depression.

Covid-19 pandemic exacerbates millions of missed child vaccinations

A study conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that in 2021, more than 25 million children missed their routine vaccinations that offer protection against life-threatening diseases.

A large contributing factor to the missed vaccinations is the Covid-19 pandemic that disrupted healthcare and other humanitarian issues around the world.

Last year marked the largest sustained decline in childhood vaccinations in approximately 30 years.

“The percentage of children who received three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3) – a marker for immunisation coverage within and across countries – fell 5 percentage points between 2019 and 2021 to 81 percent,” said the health organisation.

The sharp decline highlights the growing number of children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases.

The WHO said the decline was due to a number of factors, including an increased number of children living in conflict and fragile settings where immunisation access is challenging, misinformation, and Covid-19 related issues.

The issue of hunger and malnutrition on the African continent is not an issue that stands alone but is exacerbated by a multitude of other ongoing crises around the world.

* Turner is a multi-media journalist.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.