As we approach the five-year anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks many people will stop to remember that horrific tragedy. On that day coordinated attacks killed approximately 3,000 people and shook the United States to its foundation. People going about their daily lives as well as heroes that rushed to the scene to offer aid and assistance perished in a brutal and unforgiving way.
But as local, dramatic and cruel images burn an impression onto our minds, common and distant, but equally horrific tragedies all but vanish from our consciousness. According to a report by the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations (FAO) nearly 11 million children die before reaching the age of five each year. That’s the same as approximately 30,000 children each day or the equivalent 10 September 11th tragedies worth of children dieing each and every day. And underlying more than half of these child deaths are hunger and malnutrition.
Although there have been improvements in parts of the world over the years nearly 800 million people live in a constant state of hunger today. In addition, 121 million children do not attend school, 530,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth, and 1 million people die from malaria.
In 1996, nations took a pledge at the World Food Summit, or WFS, to make dramatic changes in these conditions. “We pledge our political will and our common and national commitment to achieving food security for all and to an ongoing effort to eradicate hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015.” Unfortunately, since the 1990s progress has “slowed significantly in Asia and stalled completely worldwide.”
Although economic growth is often indicated as key to alleviating poverty and hunger, numerous studies have provided evidence that the type of economic growth is more important. Analysis has shown that “growth in rural areas in the agricultural sector has a much greater impact on reducing poverty that did urban and industrial growth.” So while important, economic growth alone is not sufficient to reduce hunger.
Education has long been acclaimed as one of the most powerful ways to reduce hunger and poverty. Lack of education undercuts productivity, employability and ability to earn money, all leading to poverty and hunger. Two-thirds of the 121-million school-age children that do not attend any school are girls. Most live in rural areas where hunger and poverty is the most common.
Even if children are able to attend school, hunger and malnutrition impair a child’s performance. Low birth weight, protein-energy malnutrition, anemia (low red blood) and iodine deficiency all impair learning. “Iron-deficiency anemia, which affects more than half of all school-age children, damages their ability to learn by eroding attention span and memory.”
Research shows that educated women have healthier families. Their children are better nourished, are less likely to die in infancy, and are more likely to attend school. A recent study of 63 countries found that gains in women’s education made the single largest contribution to the decline of malnutrition from 1970 to 1995 accounting for 43 percent of the progress. A World Bank report showed that providing gender equal education could save the lives of more than 1 million children every year.
Hunger and malnutrition are the underlying cause of more than half of all child deaths each year resulting in the deaths of 6 million children. However most children do not die of starvation. Treatable infectious diseases including pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, and measles kill the vast majority of these children. Most would not die if their bodies were not weakened by malnutrition. “Children who are mildly underweight are about twice as likely to die of infectious diseases as children who are better nourished. For children who are moderately to severely underweight, the risk of death is five to eight times higher.”
Vitamins and minerals are essential to reducing deaths from infectious diseases. Vitamin A deficiency increases the risk of death from diarrhea, measles, and malaria by 20 to 24 percent and those deficient in zinc increase their risk of death from these diseases by 13 to 21 percent. “Shortages of vitamin A and zinc alone cause the deaths of more than 1.5 million children each year.”
Of the nearly 530,000 women that die as a result of complications of pregnancy and childbirth, nearly 99% of these take place in the developing world. Most of these deaths could be prevented if women had access to adequate diets, safe water and sanitation, basic literacy and health services. Again access to adequate nutrients can make a huge difference. A case study in Thailand reduced maternal deaths from 230 per 100,000 to 17 per 100,000 in just four years. The program identified pregnant women and made sure they received food supplements to improve overall nutrition as well as iron and folic acid supplements to treat anemia. The program also promoted home gardening and the consumption of fruits and vegetables to provide vital micronutrients.
The cost of alleviating this enormous human tragedy is relatively small. For less than 1 billion dollars – less than the cost of 1 week of the Iraq war – would provide insecticide-treated bed nets for 70 percent of children in Africa and preventative treatment for people suffering from malaria attacks. Vitamin A supplements to boost resistance to malaria and other diseases could be supplied for as little as 10 cents a year per child.
The report foreword concludes, “For far too long, hunger and poverty have driven and infernal engine of deprivation and suffering. The time and the opportunity have finally come to throw that engine into forward gear – to turn hunger reduction into the driving force for progress and hope, as improved nutrition fuels better health, increases school attendance, reduces child maternal mortality, empowers women, lowers the incidence and mortality rates of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, and helps reverse the degradation of soil and water resources, the destruction of forests and loss of biodiversity. It can be done.”
“We will spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty…” – Millennium Declaration, 2000
Source: The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2005