Malnutrition in Africa

In sub-Saharan Africa almost 25% of the children are malnourished. In Benin, 16% of those children suffer from acute and 44% from chronic malnutrition. Children and pregnant women are the most vulnerable. Malnutrition has several causes, such as lack of varied food, lack of medical care, inadequate hygiene, inadequate care for children, low education of mothers. Infants who are not exclusively breastfed in the first six months after birth are very prone to severe diarrhoea, resulting in malnutrition. Babies who, after the ideal six months of breastfeeding, switch to food that is poor in proteins which makes them evolve into kwashiorkor, an ailment which occurs to children with sufficient calories but too few proteins.

Kwashiorkor means the ‘disease of weaning’ and originates from Swahili, referring to “red and sad”. These children have fluid swollen bellies, discoloured and curly hairs and skin pigmentation disorders, in addition to heart failure and other serious illnesses.

Recognizing malnutrition in children is not easy. Acute malnutrition is clearly visible due to undersized weight versus length. With chronic malnutrition, height lags behind age. In order to recognise this state, one must systematically examine all the values according to age. In the field we use the measurement of the upper arm circumference of children (1-5 years) as an indicator of the nutritional condition.

The consequences of malnutrition are far-reaching. During the first 1000 days of life, from conception to about two years, the nutritional environment is extremely important for brain development. Chronic malnutrition at a young age is accompanied by limited mental and social development. The cell’s memory causes the disastrous environmental factor of food deficiency to continue due to changes in the DNA (epigenetics). Studies in epidemiology (health and disease in human populations) and epigenetics (external influences on DNA) show that these children later bear the negative consequences of malnutrition, with high susceptibility to disease and high mortality. In sub-Saharan Africa, malnutrition is 45% of the cause of mortality among children (<5 y.) suffering from preventable or treatable diseases, such as measles, malaria, meningitis and stomach flu.

Approximately 10% of the world’s population suffers from malnutrition, with sub-Saharan Africa as the sad leader (220 million). The means to reduce malnutrition are simple: hygiene, potable water, preventive vaccinations, training of parents, training of care providers, care for mother and child, exclusive breastfeeding until the age of six months and availability of a varied diet with sufficient proteins. The sustainable development of local food sources in agriculture, cattle raising and fishing offers a solution.

“Infant mortality (%) in different diseases according to the degree of malnutrition” Study by Prentice et al, JCI 2008

Prof. dr. Chris Van Geet