Famine and Public Health

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Famine and Public Health


By: Dempster

Date: January 21, 1970


Famine is the extreme lack of food and nutrients, often resulting in widespread disease and death. A particularly large number of famines occurred during the 1900s, and into the twenty-first century, despite the world's extensive social, economic, and technical advances during the same time period. Although efforts have been made to combat and prevent famines, food shortages around the globe, due to such factors as war, drought, and ill-focused political decisions, continue to take a toll on the lives of some of the world's most impoverished inhabitants.

Acute hunger can cause people to die of starvation directly, but there are many more individuals who may survive famine, only to be faced with the health problems that often accompany undernourishment and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Common effects of malnutrition include stunted growth, weakness, and susceptibility to disease. People who are malnourished often have poor concentration, which exacerbates the problem of hunger, as it is difficult for hungry people to work in fields, or earn money for buying food. Pregnant women, those who are breast-feeding newborns, and children are the most vulnerable to hunger related problems. Over 150 million children, worldwide, below the age of five, are said to be underweight. Eleven million children under the age of five die each year, with over half of the deaths directly related to malnutrition. Typically these children do not die from starvation itself, but rather from the diseases that strike a weak and vulnerable body, whose immune system is likely unable to put up a defense. The four most common childhood illnesses in developing countries are diarrhea, respiratory illness, malaria, and measles.

All parts of the globe are known to have experienced famine. The blockade of German trade ships by Britain and France, along with a harsh winter in 1916–1917, left several hundred thousand Germans dead prior to the start of World War I. Five to eight million people in Ukraine died from famine during the 1930s, when the Soviet Union seized agriculture outputs in hopes of exporting more food to bring in money for industrialization. The Chinese famine between 1958–1962 is considered one of the worst in history, with estimates of up to thirty million people dying as China's leader, Mao Ze-dong, implemented a plan of rapid industrialization in rural areas.

Famines occurring in Africa have received the most extensive international publicity. During Nigeria's civil war with Biafra between 1968–1970, at least one million civilians died from hunger and fighting. The world was shocked by photographs of starving children with distended stomachs caused by protein deficiency. Between 1984–1985, drought throughout Ethiopia impacted 120 million people, with scenes of starvation seen on television sets throughout the western world. Fundraising events all over the world led to the arrival of some emergency food aid to Ethiopia, but bottlenecks at the ports, and poor quality roads slowed down relief efforts. Throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, civil war between the Arab and black Sudanese have led to food crises, particularly in the Darfur region of Sudan, where 3.4 million, or half of the region's population have been forced from their homes and farmlands. Throughout various regions of Africa, ongoing political unrest, unreliable rainfall, and poverty keep millions of people at risk of hunger.



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The United Nations (UN) classifies 1.2 billion people below the international poverty line, living on less than one dollar per day. Many of these people experience regular food shortages, while others are just barely able to meet their daily food requirements. All families under the poverty line are vulnerable to shocks such as droughts, earthquakes, and wars, all which are likely to further hamper the ability of impoverished people to eat adequate levels of food. Those people, who have difficulty meeting food requirements, and those who are barely able to survive, are considered to have low levels of food security.

The condition know as kwashiorkor results from protein deficiency, and is responsible for the swollen abdomen that often appears in malnourished children during a famine. Absolute starvation usually results in body tissue and fluid wasting, and ultimately, kidney failure or heart failure brought on by an imbalance of electrolytes (minerals and salts) in the body. Other diseases that often threaten a population vulnerable to famine include cholera, measles, and pneumonia.

Despite the availability of food throughout the developed world, reaching people who need food is not a simple task. Poor infrastructure can make the transportation of food difficult. Also, the necessary political will of developed countries to assist poorer nations must be present. There are many different international bodies with mission statements regarding the decreasing of hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. Eradicating hunger is the first of the twenty-first century's Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set at the United Nations (UN) Millennium Summit in 2000. There are three UN agencies directly involved in food assistance and agriculture: the World Food Program (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD). WFP is the agency responsible for coordinating and distributing food aid provided by the United States, European Union, Japan, and other countries. WFP's operations bring food to people displaced by war, those who cannot grow food due to drought, and WFP helps schools and hospitals distribute more nutritious meals. FAO and IFAD deal more with agriculture development, and with helping communities produce larger quantities of food more efficiently.



Lappé, Frances Moore, Joseph Collins, and Peter Rosset. World Hunger: 12 Myths. New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Runge, Carlisle Ford, et al. Ending Hunger in our Lifetime: Food Security and Globalization. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Web sites

Bread for the World Institute. "Famine." 〈http://www.bread.org/learn/global-hunger-issues/famine.html〉 (accessed January 16, 2006).

Philips, B. BBC. "Biafra: Thirty Years On." 〈http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/596712.stm〉 (accessed January 16, 2006).

United Nations Children Fund. "Darfur: Children Facing Severe Food Shortages." 〈http://www.unicef.org/emerg/darfur/index_30529.html〉 (accessed January 16, 2006).

Watson, F. Institute of Child Health—NutritionWorks. "One Hundred Years of Famine—A Pause for Reflection." 〈http://www.ennonline.net/fex/08/ms20.html〉 (accessed January 16, 2006).