Friday, June 14, 2024

The dangerous consequences of hunger

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Palestinian children fight to be allocated food during a food queue in the Jabalia refugee camp in March this year. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (WFP) has determined that there is now a full-blown famine in northern Gaza, and that the famine is spreading southwards in the Gaza Strip: Photo: Mahmoud Essa / AP / NTB

Of NTB | 22.05.2024 05:49:31

Medicine and health: In early May, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (WFP) stated that there is now a full-blown famine in northern Gaza. This means that at least every fifth person there does not have enough to eat, and that almost every third child is acutely malnourished. And according to the WFP, the famine is spreading south along the Gaza Strip.

Right now, Gaza’s starving population is getting the most attention internationally, but hunger is also ravaging many other countries, such as in Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo and Honduras, to name just a few.

The UN emphasizes that the world is far from on track to reach the goal of eradicating hunger by 2030. The numbers are actually going in the wrong direction. There were 702 to 828 million people globally who were undernourished in 2022. That is 150 million more than before the covid-19 pandemic started, according to United Nations.

We can even feel it if we just go half or a whole day without eating anything in particular. We become more tired and lethargic, we feel a twinge in the stomach, but it’s actually going well. But for those who are starving, it is not just about one day, but day after day. And the worst part – they don’t know when they can get food and feel full again. Then their bodies go into low flame.

– The body simply reduces its needs. It is smart in that way, says Mia Hejdenberg, medical humanitarian adviser at Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

In the first stages, you feel tired and powerless, and then the body starts to take priority.

– When the body does not get nutrition, it loses muscle mass and this makes you weak and you lose endurance. I have seen four-year-olds who can no longer walk because they have lost muscle strength, says Anneli Eriksson, who is a nurse and research specialist at the department of global public health at Karolinska Institutet (KI).

Hejdenberg explains that the body is weakened in several ways and that the heart is affected.

– You get anemia and fewer red blood cells, which in turn makes it more difficult to transport oxygen around the body. It focuses more on the vital functions and shuts down everything else, she explains.

One can get elevated sodium values ​​while the potassium value decreases. At the same time, diarrhea can cause the values ​​to be low.

– It is common with disturbances, that the salt level in the blood simply becomes skewed, says Eriksson, who has worked with malnourished children for many years.

Children with severe acute malnutrition lack muscle and fat, and the body therefore has difficulty maintaining the correct temperature. Hypothermia – too low a body temperature – is a life-threatening condition.

The experts emphasize that too low blood sugar, hypoglycaemia, is also a risk in malnourished children. Both hypothermia and hypoglycaemia are important reasons why children can die from malnutrition.

– Some children with severe acute malnutrition swell up. This means that someone can mistake them for chubby children, says Hejdenberg.

The immune system also becomes extra vulnerable during starvation. It is not unusual for children who suffer from malnutrition to also have infectious diseases.

– You can get blood poisoning without a fever. The only sign is that you have a low temperature instead of a fever. The immune system simply does not work as it should, says Eriksson.

– That is why we sometimes give malnourished children antibiotics as a countermeasure, because it is difficult to detect if they are ill, she adds.

– Then the child no longer has fat and muscle mass left on the arm, it is just the leg with skin around it, says Eriksson.

Parents can be trained to measure the circumference of their children’s upper arms. If they see that it turns yellow or red, they must therefore try to seek help.

A child who has been malnourished can also have problems later in life because a lack of nutrition can affect their physical and cognitive abilities. But Eriksson still emphasizes that children often have an ability to recover.

– Children can go from being completely emaciated to running and playing in a relatively short time, she says. But then they must get help.

Hunger is written so clearly on the faces and bodies of the people who suffer. But do we really know what happens in the body when it is starving?

Hunger is the last step on a five-point scale. This means extreme food shortages and that basic needs cannot be met.

Several organs, including the kidneys, go to sleep when the body is starving.

The children often get diarrhoea, but you can’t just start giving them regular rehydration, because then they risk accumulating too much fluid. In combination with the heart not being able to pump normally, the child risks developing a life-threatening condition.

An adult human can survive up to three weeks without food, although this varies from individual to individual. Children are far more vulnerable, especially children under the age of five.

Malnutrition in children is measured by comparing the child’s weight and height, but this can be complicated and time-consuming. An easier way is to measure the middle upper arm circumference. A child’s upper arm circumference is measured with a tape divided into different colours/scales. If it is red, the child is acutely malnourished.

(© NTB)

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