Malnutrition is defined as the insufficient, excessive or imbalanced consumption of nutrients. Insufficient and imbalanced malnutrition is prevalent within the developing world and negatively affects people’s health, productivity, sense of hope and overall well-being. The consequences of malnutrition are varied and far-reaching. Undernutrition can retard growth and development, reduce physical activity and intellectual performance, impair resistance to infections, increase morbidity and leads to disabilities and death. Poor nutritional status in general is associated with increased prevalence of anaemia, pregnancy and delivery problems, increased rates of intrauterine growth retardation, low birth weight and perinatal mortality. Economically, the constant search for food consumes valuable time and energy of poor people, allowing less time for work and earning an income. Socially, the lack of proper nutrition and poor health burden families and communities with increased medical cost and burden of care for the sick. Also, malnutrition reduces ability of recovery from infectious and non-infectious diseases thus increasing social costs from the death of productive members of the communities.
Poor nutrition and calorie deficiencies cause nearly one in three people to die prematurely or have disabilities, according to the World Health Organisation. Of the millions of children who die before their fifth birthday, 30-40 percent of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, the region that suffers from the highest rates of hunger and malnutrition. Most of these deaths are attributed, not to outright starvation, but to diseases that attack vulnerable children whose bodies have been weakened by malnutrition. Every year, more than 20 million low-birth weight babies are born in developing countries.
Malnutrition constitutes a global ‘silent emergency’, killing millions every year and sapping the long-term economic vitality of nations. It is a tangle of two mutually reinforcing factors: insufficient nutrient intake and illness. Malnutrition also perpetuates a generational cycle of low productivity and poverty, as malnourished parents bear underweight, malnourished children; and malnourished children are likely to be intellectually impaired, with diminished productive and creative capacities. Disease and inadequate diet act synergistically, each aggravating the effects of the other to produce the ‘malnutrition and infection complex’. In malnourished persons, illnesses tend to be more frequent, more severe and prolonged.
The most visible effects of malnutrition are non-communicable diseases (NCD’s) such as anaemia, rubella, scurvy and various forms of mental and developmental disorders. The emergence of various NCD’s may be linked to dietary patterns. Protein, vitamin and micronutrient deficiency-based diseases have steadily been on the increase from the 1940’s in most African countries due to the increase of risk factors within communities such as a poor and unhealthy diet. NCD’s contribute to the high mortality rate in Africa.
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