ROME — For most people reading this, in an era of obesity, the idea of going to the doctor when we are sick and being told to eat more is bizarre. And yet, for millions of people in the developing world, undernutrition is the root cause of many of their ailments. Eating more of the right food is actually the best way to stay healthy.
It may seem blindingly obvious when you spell it out, but few people realize that there is a direct link between health and hunger. Hungry people are far less effective in fighting disease than well-fed people.
An undernourished child tends to suffer more days of sickness than a well-nourished child for simple medical reasons: Undernutrition suppresses the immune system and allows infections to spread, further depleting the body of essential nutrients.
And it works both ways. Infections, no matter how mild, have an adverse effect on a person’s nutritional status, triggering different reactions, including reduced appetite. And even when nutrients are absorbed, they may be lost as a result of the infections.
It is a self-perpetuating problem, strongly linked to political and economic choices. Just as poor health and undernutrition affect the growth and development of the individual, so they constrain the social and economic development of nations.
These links are explored in a major report published last month by the United Nations World Food Program. “The World Hunger Series 2007 — Hunger and Health” is the second in a series that was launched last year with “Hunger and Learning.”
One of the clearest examples of the close relationship between hunger and health is in the AIDS pandemic. When a person is infected with HIV, their intestinal track is affected, resulting in poor absorption and loss of appetite. This comes precisely when they should (according to the World Health Organization) be increasing their energy intake — by up to 30 percent for adults and 100 percent for children, if they are to avoid the wasting and growth failure, which are the hallmarks of AIDS.
Given the huge sums of money invested in AIDS research and spent on anti-retroviral treatment (ART), it is surprising how many donors apparently overlook the need for a comprehensive package that includes food support when treating people with AIDS. And the cost of that food supplement is less than 2 percent of the current cost of drug programs — averaging just 66 cents per person per day.
As with any other drug, ART is more effective when people are adequately nourished, yet little is being done to ensure that people on treatment have enough to eat in order to benefit fully and adhere to the drugs that they are taking.
Studies in Rwanda and Tanzania indicate that lack of food is a major reason that people do not seek treatment for HIV/AIDS: They fear that when they have the treatment, their appetite will grow and they lack sufficient food to meet their increased needs.
It is only by prioritizing the hungry — especially women and children at all stages of the life cycle — and by supporting principles of inclusion, equality, ease of access and transparency that the hungry can benefit from the technological innovations transforming the world.
Now there is a real risk that the Millennium Development Goals, themselves relatively modest, may not be met. The “World Hunger Series” challenges leaders to build on past successes, combining current knowledge with a will to undertake practical and effective solutions.
For the first time in history, we can direct enormous resources to overcoming hunger and poor health. The cost of inaction is high, both economically and morally; the cost of action is modest by comparison. The proven solutions (all detailed in “World Hunger Series 2007”) are available and affordable, but they need to be scaled up to reach the world’s vulnerable and marginalized people. For the people who suffer from hunger in any of its forms are not the decision-makers, nor are they necessarily well represented by them.
Those of us who are not among the ranks of the world’s 2 billion people who suffer from “hidden hunger” (micronutrient deficiencies) might pause for a moment, during the coming weeks of feasting in many countries, and help mobilize the collective will to end hunger and improve health. Not just for economic reasons, but because ending hunger is a moral imperative.
Sheila Sisulu, deputy executive director of the World Food Program, presented “World Hunger Series 2007 — Hunger and Health,” an annual WFP report on the problems of hunger, on Nov. 28.
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