Hunger in India

Photo: Oriane Zerah

On the list of the world’s top 10 health risks, hunger continues to occupy the first position. One out of eight people go to sleep hungry every night despite living in a world where there is enough food to feed all of us. Hunger, or undernutrition, is a result of insufficient intake of macro and micro nutrients. It can, and often does, lead to chronic malnutrition or severe wasting associated with acute malnutrition.

A staggering 3.5 million global deaths are attributed to the underlying cause of maternal and child undernutrition. About 51.5 million children under five years of age are acutely malnourished or wasted due to a sudden decrease in nutrient consumption, absorption or retention. Of these, over a third – an estimated 18.7 million children – suffer from severe acute malnutrition (or SAM). In the absence of treatment, death poses a real risk to these young ones. Their access to treatment is fundamental in the struggle to overcome malnutrition. 

One in every four of the world’s malnourished children lives in India. Half of all child deaths in our country are caused by malnutrition: over 2.4 million children aged under-five die before receiving treatment. This figure seems even more appalling when one considers the fact that we know exactly what is to be done in order to treat and prevent malnutrition. Child deaths due to malnutrition in this day and age are abnormal, and disturbingly common.

More than 40 per cent of all underweight children in India are accounted for by the states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Fight Hunger Foundation currently has projects running in the rural areas of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, in the slums of Mumbai and the tribal community in Palghar district in Maharashtra.

About malnutrition

Acute malnutrition

Acute malnutrition occurs when the body is not supplied with enough food and consumes its energy reserves. As the body starts looking for nutrients and vital energy on its own, it begins consuming its own tissue starting with muscle and fat. This slows down the body’s metabolism, severely disturbing its temperature regulation and leading to a severe renal malfunction and a faltering immune system. The greater the loss of muscle mass and other tissues, the greater is the threat to survival.

Moderate acute malnutrition

Even slight acute malnutrition implies an increased risk of death, because serious deficiencies damage the immune system and cause increased susceptibility to disease. These deficiencies include anaemia (iron deficiency), goitre (through iodine deficiency), xerophthalmia (caused by lack of vitamin A) as well as scurvy, pellagra, beriberi (caused by lack of vitamin B) and rickets (vitamin D deficiency).

Severe acute malnutrition

Acute malnutrition, in its severest form, can be fatal if left untreated. Severe acute malnutrition affects approximately 19 million children worldwide each year and causes the death of one million children under five. These deaths are even more tragic in the light of severe acute malnutrition as they are predictable, preventable and very much treatable. The disease can take one of two forms: marasmus or oedema. 

(1) Marasmus

Children suffering from marasmus look almost elderly – characterised by a significant loss of weight and muscle tissue. Their skeletal bodies have lost any equilibrium between weight and height. The body’s vital processes become severely compromised: metabolism is slowed, thermal regulation is disrupted, intestinal absorption and kidney function are diminished, the liver’s capacity to synthesise proteins and eliminate toxins is reduced, and the immunological system doesn’t function properly, signifying less resistance to illness and disease. Even if a child manages to survive a bout of marasmus, the damage is irreversible and the deficiencies sustained can never be overcome.

(2) Oedema

Oedema is characterised by bilateral oedemas (swollen tissue) on a child’s arms, legs and face –these children often appear full-faced despite being extremely malnourished. Beneath these oedemas, the muscles have been severely weakened, causing excruciating cramping and muscle pain, and as is the case with marasmus, children with kwashiorkor suffer from significant damage to the functioning of their internal systems.



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