The Many Faces of Malnutrition

by: Jamie Malewska, Marketing Coordinator

The Many Faces of Malnutrition

For those of us living in areas where food is readily accessible at grocery stores and in our homes, it can be difficult to grasp that people are dying of malnutrition every day. How does this happen? Who is the most vulnerable? What can be done?

To understand this better, let’s first take a look at what malnutrition really is. There are many faces of malnutrition. Malnutrition is a broad phrase that includes any form of nutrient deficiency or imbalance. This includes forms of overnutrition like obesity. Every country in the world has people who are experiencing a form of malnourishment. However, when we talk about malnutrition at Saving Moses, we are almost exclusively talking about undernutrition and its most dangerous form- Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM).

What is Severe Acute Malnutrition?

SAM is an advanced form of starvation. If left untreated it is 100% fatal. Babies and toddlers are more vulnerable than older children and adults to SAM and the complications that come with it. Some of these complications include co-morbidities, which are other diseases and health problems that are either caused or exacerbated by SAM.

The body needs nutrients and strength to fight off viruses and bacteria, so being undernourished weakens the immune system. Because of this, common colds, infections, and other diseases that would not normally be life-threatening can become a death sentence for those with SAM. This situation becomes even more dangerous for babies and toddlers because they have not developed immunity to common colds and infections. Because of this, many little ones who come to the Saving Moses malnutrition clinics have accompanying diseases. However, without first treating malnutrition, other medical efforts would be ineffective.

Low body weight, visible bodily wasting, and swelling (edema) are some of the most visible symptoms of SAM. When the body does not have enough protein, it becomes difficult for blood vessels to hold salt and water, so they begin leaking out into other tissues causing painful swelling. 

Child Development

On a global scale, SAM is responsible for almost half of all under-five deaths. According to UNICEF, over 3 million 0–5-year-olds die from malnutrition-related causes every single year. For babies and toddlers that survive SAM, the impacts of this disease can last a lifetime. 

The first five years of life are vital developmental years. On average, by the time a child turns 5, 90% of their brain is already developed. Nutrients are essential for little-growing bodies and not having enough can have costly effects on their future health and mental abilities. SAM, especially recurring cases can cause cognitive delays and stunting. The younger a person is, the more likely it is that having SAM will have lifelong consequences.

Why are People Going Hungry?

Severe weather, conflict, governmental instability, poverty, and poor feeding and care practices all contribute to communities facing food insecurity and malnutrition. Unfortunately, developing countries are the most susceptible to these risk factors. Tragically, according to the World Health Organization, the number of people around the world who are going hungry is rising, and not by a small amount. Since 2019, this number has increased by 150 million. The lasting impacts of Covid-19, the war in Ukraine, and a faltering global economy fueled by inflation are all major contributors to this growing humanitarian crisis. .

Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo

Currently, Saving Moses has malnutrition-feeding programs in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In both countries, malnutrition is a leading cause of under-five deaths.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, conflict is the main fuel source of the hunger crisis. Families rely on their farms for food, but when violent militias come through a village, the population scatters, leaving their main food source behind. For babies and toddlers, violence can also lead to the loss of their primary caregiver. Without their primary caregiver, babies and toddlers are especially vulnerable to becoming malnourished.

In Angola, families rely on their farms and livestock for food and income. Angola is facing the worst drought it has seen in 40 years. This drought is drying up wells, rivers, lakes, and watering holes. Livestock as well as people are struggling to access clean drinking water, and crops are drying out. Because of this, families are losing their main food and income sources, making it more difficult to buy necessities from local markets. These necessities are also going up in price due to import disruptions from the Russia-Ukraine war, making it nearly impossible for families to afford enough food for their families.

SAM is looming over the growing babies and toddlers in these areas.

What can be done?

The treatment for Severe Acute Malnutrition is a fortified food supplement called therapeutic formula. There are two types of formulas, F-75 and F-100. F-75 is the starting formula for SAM. Little ones who are severely malnourished cannot tolerate normal amounts of sodium, protein, or fat, and getting too much can be deadly. They also need high amounts of glucose. F-75 is made to stabilize the body and get it to a point where it can tolerate more nutrients. After being on F-75 for a few days, they graduate to F-100 which is much higher in calories and protein. All in all, it takes about 4-6 weeks of treatment to completely heal from SAM.

Community health screenings are another incredibly powerful tool to fight malnutrition. In Angola, we conduct free health screenings for babies and toddlers. Parents bring their little ones to measure their height and weight. Then, we take a measurement of their upper arm circumference. This is a key diagnostic tool for SAM. The upper arm circumference can tell us if a baby or toddler is well-nourished, moderately malnourished, or severely malnourished. Moderate cases can be treated at the community level, preventing them from turning into SAM. This preventable measure keeps babies and toddlers out of our clinics and at a lower risk of developmental consequences.

Hope in Hunger

Over the years we have seen the devastating impacts of SAM in babies and toddlers on families, communities, and futures.  In many ways the world’s hunger crisis is overwhelming, but that does not mean there is nothing we can do about it. As Mother Teresa said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.”  

The causes of SAM are oftentimes complex, but there is hope. Our community screenings are successfully catching moderate cases of malnutrition and preventing them from becoming severe enough to impact the child’s development. For little ones with SAM, if they make it to one of our malnutrition clinics in time, they have almost a 90% chance of survival

Most likely, you will not solve the global hunger crisis, but you can solve it for one baby, toddler, or family. If you want to step in and bring hope, donate now, and help us feed starving little ones. It takes just $38 to feed a starving baby for an entire month. Donate today.

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