In the immediate wake of a disaster, malnutrition is usually not the first concern. Complications that arise from malnutrition, however, contribute to increasing death tolls. When an immune system is weakened by a lack of nutrients from a shortage of food and/or contaminated water, even typically “harmless” illnesses like diarrhea can have devastating effects – especially for children and others whose immune systems are not fully developed or full strength. According to the Global Health Council, diarrhea killed roughly 1.3 million children in 2008 alone. Pneumonia killed another 1.6 million.

file261288616270Natural disasters, such as earthquakes or floods, can dramatically affect food supply and distribution. In addition, when affected populations must rely solely on the distribution of emergency relief rations for extended periods, they miss the full scope of nutrients needed for health. Malnourishment is an imbalance in a person’s intake of nutrients and other dietary elements (either too much or too little); according to the World Health Organization, it affects some 3 billion people to varying degrees. One out of five people in developing countries suffer from hunger.

Unfortunately, the answer is not as simple as just shipping grain to malnourished communities. Though immediate relief efforts—such as external aid being given in the current Horn of Africa famine—significantly help reduce the number of deaths, for those who are seriously malnourished, eating is a physiologically difficult task. Bacteria in the digestive system necessary for processing food may no longer be present. As such, specialized feeding programs are necessary. So, too, are distribution efforts that don’t require parents to bring children to hospitals or infirmaries for food. These trips not only potentially keep a parent from earning income elsewhere; they also put that parent at risk of becoming ill from being around others who are sick. When it comes to babies, even donations of powdered infant formula can be problematic, as mixing it with dirty water can increase the chance of illness.

Well-funded research can have a profound effect in disaster preparedness around nutrition. Consider the development of Plumpy’nut, an edible peanut paste, rich in calories and vitamins that has made great strides in bringing children back from severe malnutrition. It has been distributed in areas such as Haiti and Africa with noted success, but it is expensive; as of 2010, it cost about $60 per child for a two-month supply. Opportunities still abound for creating innovative, lasting solutions for improving the worldwide picture of nutrition.

What You Should Know

  • Post-disaster feeding intervention programs should be part of longer-term development strategies that prevent the cycle from continuing. Dependence on external assistance and feeding efforts can keep those living in areas prone to malnutrition from seeking new solutions.
  • Even after immediate needs are met, malnutrition can have consequences for generations to come. When women are severely malnourished, they become unable to have children. In addition, chronic malnutrition can affect brain development, potentially diminishing cognitive ability in future years.
  • Issues of malnourishment and food insecurity also exist outside the traditional definition of an “emergency.” Consider the pastoralists of rural Africa, nomadic communities constantly in search of appropriate pastures for goats and/or cattle. Settled members of the group—often women and children—regularly suffer from seasonal malnutrition as the herds go to graze. Nutritional supplements and culturally appropriate educational materials could make a significant impact. Malnutrition and hunger also happen in the United States. In 2010, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, 17.2 million U.S. households—approximately one in seven—were food insecure, the highest number ever recorded in the nation.
  • Ongoing nutrition surveillance is essential—especially in vulnerable populations. Disaster preparedness efforts around nutrition should take into account the ongoing specific needs of groups such as the elderly and those with HIV/AIDS or diabetes. Immune systems strengthened by good nutrition are better able to fight illness and disease.

How You Can Help

Those interested in mitigating malnutrition should:

  • Ensure disaster response grants incorporate nutrition. The Sphere Project, for example, offers standards for both preventing and correcting malnutrition. Those most at risk for micronutrient deficiencies and diseases include: children under two; women who are pregnant or breastfeeding; older people; and families with chronically ill members. Disasters often exacerbate pre-existing issues.
  • Shore up plans to protect vulnerable populations should food supplies decline. Work with established agencies and programs that serve those whose immune systems are compromised by illness and/or age. In the event of a disaster, for example, what is the plan for those with diabetes or HIV/AIDS, who have different nutritional needs that the rest of the general population?
  • Invest in educational and public-awareness partnerships with local agencies. Partnering with experienced, well-connected individuals on the ground is more effective than just delivering supplies. Communities invested in their own long-term success will reap greater rewards.  
  • Foster strategic partnerships to manufacture, distribute, and stockpile supplies before a disaster occurs. Work with companies that widely distribute other items to carry food supplies and supplements, and/or encourage local companies to manufacture those supplies. Malnutrition does not occur overnight; as such, preparedness can have a marked effect. Non-perishable items must be available—and a plan for getting them to the people most in need must be in place.

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