A hungry child

Hunger, Famine, and Nutritional Deficiency Diseases


The state of getting no food is called as hunger or starvation. This is the result of poverty.

Who are hungry? Well, large numbers of men, women and children across the world are hungry. Most of the world’s hungry live in developing countries.

According to the latest report of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO 2014), there are 805 million hungry people in the world and 98 percent of them are in developing countries. Out of this figure about 526 million people in Asia and Pacific, 227 people in Africa, 37 million people in Latin America/ Caribbean, and 15 million people are in developed countries. It has reported that about half of the world’s hungry people are farmers who have small holdings or marginal lands prone to natural disasters. 20 percent of the hungry people belong to landless families who depend on farming and about 10 per cent are those who depend on herding, fishing or forest resources.

According to a report from the UNICEF (2009), about 146 million children in developing countries are underweight. This is reported to be the result of acute hunger. About 17 million children are born underweight annually. This is the result of inadequate nutrition of women before and during pregnancy.

Women are the world’s primary food producers, yet cultural traditions and social structures often mean women are much more affected by hunger and poverty than men. A mother who is stunted or underweight due to an inadequate diet often give birth to low-birth-weight children.

A famine is a widespread scarcity of food, caused by several factors including crop failure, population unbalance, or government policies. This phenomenon is usually accompanied or followed by regional malnutrition, starvation, epidemic, and increased mortality. Nearly every continent in the world has experienced a period of famine throughout history. Some countries, particularly in sub-Sahara Africa, continue to have extreme cases of famine.

 Famines in India became a frequent event mostly during the time of the British in the country. During this time, India suffered in from twelve famines and four severe scarcities. The most significant amongst those was the Great Famine of Bengal of 1769-70, which claimed a large toll of lives. The state government did not adopt any relief measures.

The years 1781-82 were the period of extreme crisis in Chennai; in 1784 severe famines afflicted the whole of Northern India. However, during the Chennai famine, the state provided relief to the famine affected areas.

Famine is a different problem. Persons afflicted by famine do not have enough food to survive. If they do not obtain food, to relieve the famine, they will die. A famine does not continue to affect the same population for a long time. The fundamental difference between famine and hunger is found in whether the people have enough food to survive, or not.

People who suffer from hunger remain undernourished. They don’t get enough food to eat. As such they don’t get energy, they need to live active lives. Undernourished persons remain unable to study, work or otherwise perform physical and mental activities. This condition is especially hard for women and children.

Continuous hunger weakens the immune system and makes them vulnerable to diseases and infections. Mothers who suffer continuous hunger often give birth to underweight and weak babies, and they face increased risk of death.

Undernourishment causes deficiency diseases. Diseases that develop due to deficiency of any nutrient in body are caused deficiency diseases. In other words, a disease which is caused by a dietary deficiency of specific nutrients especially a vitamin or mineral possibly stemming from insufficient intake, digestion, absorption, or utilization of nutrients. Some deficiency diseases are mentioned below –

1. Deficiency of Carbohydrate causes loss of energy. Long-term carbohydrate inadequacy results in increased production of organic compounds called ketones.

2. Deficiency of Protein is usually called as Protein Calorie Malnutrition (PCM). This condition basically leads to two types of diseases in children -Marasmus and Kwashiorkor

Proteins are body building elements required by the human body. They provide the required energy for the body to function properly and are crucial for the development of muscles. Proteins also facilitate the development of nails, a healthy skin and promote hair growth. Protein deficiency has side effects and can lead to medical conditions.

 (i). Marasmus

Young children and infants are vulnerable to consequences of lack of protein. Marasmus is a severe lack of important nutrients. Food4Africa notes that people affected by Marasmus look frail and thin. This is a fatal disease that causes weight loss, and dehydration.

(ii). Kwashiorkor

Lack of proteins from carbohydrates sources like rice, yams, and bananas causes kwashiorkor. This is a severe malnutrition disease common in older children. The University of Maryland Medical centre explains that symptoms of the illness include a swollen stomach due to fluid retention. It also has symptoms common to Marasmus such as irritability, diarrhoea, fatigue, limited growth and cognitive development as well as mental health.

3. Deficiency of fatty acids or fat is characterised by dry skin, hair loss, and impaired wound healing. Essential fatty acid requirements—a few grams a day—can be met by consuming approximately a tablespoon of polyunsaturated plant oils daily.

4. Deficiency of vitamins

(i). Deficiency of vitamin A causes Xerophthalmia and night blindness. Xerophthalmia is characterised by chronic eye infections, dryness and keratinization of epithelial tissue.

(ii). Deficiency of vitamin B1 or Thiamine causes berry- berry. Symptoms of this disease include loss of appetite, confusion and other mental symptoms, muscle weakness, painful calf muscles, poor coordination, tingling and paralysis.

(iii). Deficiency of vitamin B2 or Riboflavin causes cracks in the skin at the corners of the mouth, fissures of the lips, and an inflamed, magenta-coloured tongue. Milk, milk products, and cereals are major sources of riboflavin in the diet.

(iv). Deficiency of vitamin B3 or Nicotinic acid causes Pellagra, a disease characterised by diarrhoea, dermatitis, and dementia. Intake of high-quality protein through corn, fruits and vegetables can remove the symptoms of the disease.

(v). Deficiency of vitamin B5 or Pantothenic acid is characterised by fatigue, irritability, sleep disorders, abdominal distress, and neurological symptoms such as tingling in hands.

 (vi). Deficiency of vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine and related compounds) leads to disturbances in protein metabolism, the synthesis of neurotransmitters, and other critical functions in the body. Deficiency symptoms include dermatitis, microcytic hypochromic anaemia (small, pale red blood cells), impaired immune function, depression, confusion, and convulsions.

(vii). Deficiency of vitamin B12 or Cobalamin results in Megaloblastic anaemia due to interference with normal DNA synthesis. It also maintains the myelin sheath that protects nerve fibres. An untreated B12 deficiency can result in nerve degeneration and eventually paralysis.

(viii). Deficiency of vitamin C or Ascorbic acid causes Scurvy which is characterised by swelling of gums, bleeding from gums and from the joints and under the skin. This disease is preventable by providing the diet that is rich with Vitamin- ‘C’.

(ix). Deficiency of vitamin D or Calciferol causes bone deformities such as Rickets. (Bent bones   and knock knees) Vitamin ‘D’ is basically present in foods of animal origin such as liver, egg yolk, butter, oils extracted from the livers of fishes such as cod or shark. It is formed in the skin from a cholesterol derivative by the action of Ultra Violet rays of sunlight.

(x). Deficiency of vitamin E or Tocopherol is characterised by sterility in males and abortions in females. It also reduces the life span of Red Blood Cells. This deficiency can be prevented by regular intake of fruits, vegetables, germinating seeds, meat, egg yolk, sunflower oil etc.

(xi). Deficiency of vitamin K is characterised by reduction in clotting of blood. Long-time deficiency of this vitamin causes serious loss of blood from injuries. This deficiency can be prevented by taking leafy vegetables, cow milk, and fruits. In body it is synthesized by the bacteria present in intestine.

(xii). Deficiency of vitamin H or Biotin causes skin disorders and loss of blood. This deficiency can be prevented by regular intake of milk, fruits, vegetables and dry fruits.

(xiii). Deficiency of vitamin M or Folic acid causes skin diseases and shortage of blood. The deficiency of this vitamin can be prevented by taking green leafy vegetables, yeast, meat and fruits.

5. Deficiency of Minerals

Minerals are specific kinds of nutrients that the body needs in order to function properly. A mineral deficiency occurs when the body doesn’t obtain the required amount of a mineral. Impacts of deficiency of some very important minerals are detailed below-

A.     Calcium deficiency

Calcium is needed for strong bones and teeth. It also supports proper function of blood vessels, muscles, nerves, and hormones. Natural sources of calcium include milk, yogurt, and cheese, along with some vegetables like broccoli, kale, and Chinese cabbage. Some foods are also fortified with calcium, including tofu, cereals, and juices.

A calcium deficiency produces few obvious symptoms in the short term because the body carefully regulates the amount of calcium in the blood. Lack of calcium over long can lead to decreased bone mineral density which is called as osteopenia. If untreated in time this condition worsens and develops into osteoporosis. This increases the risk of bone fractures, especially in older adults. In children deficiency of vitamin D together with the deficiency of calcium leads to Ricketts. Symptoms of a severe deficiency include cramping of the muscles, numbness, tingling in the fingers, fatigue, poor appetite, and irregular heart rhythms.

B.     Iron deficiency

More than half of the iron in the body is in red blood cells, where it is part of haemoglobin, a protein that carries oxygen to the tissues. Iron is also a part of other proteins and enzymes that keep the body healthy. The best sources of iron are animal foods like meats, poultry, or fish, and plant foods such as beans or lentils.

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 80 percent of the world’s population suffers from iron deficiency. This condition develops slowly and can cause anaemia. The symptoms of iron-deficiency anaemia include feeling weak and tired, performing poorly at work or school, and slow social and cognitive development in children.

C.     Magnesium deficiency

The body needs magnesium for hundreds of chemical reactions. These include reactions that control blood glucose levels, blood pressure, proper functioning of muscles and nerves, and protein production. Good sources of magnesium include legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and green leafy vegetables like spinach. Magnesium deficiency is uncommon in healthy people. This is because the kidneys can keep magnesium from leaving the body through the urine. However, certain medications and chronic health conditions like alcoholism may cause magnesium deficiency.

Early signs include fatigue, weakness, and loss of appetite, nausea, and vomiting. If left untreated magnesium deficiency can lead to numbness, tingling, muscle cramps, seizures, or abnormal rhythms of the heart.

D.     Potassium deficiency

Potassium is required for muscle contraction, proper heart function, and the transmission of nerve signals. It is also needed by a few enzymes, including one that helps the body turn carbohydrates into energy. The best sources of potassium are fruits like bananas, potatoes, plums, and orange juice, as well as vegetables.

The most common cause of potassium deficiency is excessive loss. This is caused by extended vomiting, kidney disease, or the use of certain medications like diuretics.

Symptoms of potassium deficiency include muscle cramping and weakness, and constipation, bloating, or abdominal pain caused by paralysis of the intestines. Severe potassium deficiency can cause paralysis of the muscles or irregular heart rhythms that may lead to death.

E.     Zinc deficiency

Zinc plays a role in many aspects of the body’s metabolism. These include protein synthesis, immune system function, wound healing, and DNA synthesis. It is also important for proper growth and development during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence. Zinc is found in animal products like oysters, red meat, and poultry. Beans, nuts, whole grains, and dairy products are also good sources of zinc. Zinc deficiency can cause loss of appetite, decreased function of the immune system and slowed growth. Severe deficiency can also cause diarrhoea, loss of hair, impotence, and slow down healing of wounds.

F.     Iodine Deficiency

The excessive or less intake of Iodine through food causes a number of health problems the principal problem of which is Thyroidism of malfunctioning of thyroid gland. The term “iodine deficiency disorders” refers to the several consequences that iodine deficiency imposes on individuals. Important consequences include goitre, hypothyroidism, and intellectual disability. When severe iodine deficiency occurs during pregnancy, it is associated with cretinism and increased neonatal and infant mortality.

Iodine is an essential component of thyroxin (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3), the two important hormones secreted by Thyroid gland. Inadequate iodine intake leads to inadequate thyroid hormone production, and all the consequences of iodine deficiency are produced from the associated hypothyroidism.

In developing countries, iodine deficiency has been identified as one of the factors that have an adverse effect on child development. Hence intake of iodized common salt is advised. It is a global public health problem and, in combating it, emphasis should be placed on diagnosis and correction at the level of the community rather than the individual.

The International Council for the Control of Iodine Deficiency Disorders (ICCIDD) runs programme to eradicate the problem. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 90 mcg of iodine daily for infants and children up to five years, 120 mcg for children 6 to 12 years, 150 mcg daily for children ≥12 years and adults, and 250 mcg daily during pregnancy and lactation.

Feature Image : UNICEF

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