The current drought has caused numerous hospitalizations and deaths, with millions of Somali children’s lives at risk if a solution is not found. Even prior to the drought, Somali children have been some of the hardest hit in the world when it comes to malnutrition, and it is vital to understand that far from being a temporary problem, food shortage will be leaving its mark on their physical and mental health in the long-term.

Health implications of malnutrition

Malnutrition has both long- and short-term effects on children’s health. In the short term, it negatively impacts their immunity, making them more susceptible to illness. Particularly where water is scarce and sanitation practices are not ideal, infections can be passed from children to parents and vice-versa. To counter the effects of malnutrition, supplementation with Vitamin A, zinc and iron, is crucial.

Falling prey to infections can lead to other conditions and further malnutrition. When a child becomes ill, their appetite is normally affected, resulting in a lesser consumption of proteins and essential fats, which in turn lowers the absorption of Vitamins A and D. Indeed, malnutrition works in a cyclical fashion; weight loss, decreased growth, a compromised immunity etc., lead to disease, which in turn causes nutritional losses, metabolic problems, the loss of appetite, etc. The result is a lower intake of food, which leads us back to where we began: weight loss, immune dysfunction, etc.

In the long term, one of the most devastating consequences of malnutrition is inadequate bone growth. Malnutrition also has important cognitive effects, and has been linked to a host of conditions, including ADHD, poor academic performance, memory issues, learning difficulties, hampered social skills, problems with language and communication, etc.

Malnutrition has mental as well as physical consequences; often, the trauma associated with poverty in families, the loss of livestock and crops etc. during draughts, can lead to anxiety, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which actually has similar effects on brain development, as starvation. PTSD occurs after one undergoes a life-threatening effect, including natural disasters and droughts. While most people can efficiently get over stressful memories, some are unable to process trauma well and they may develop PTSD, reliving their experiences through flashbacks or nightmares, having difficulty socializing with others, suffering from insomnia, etc. PTSD is linked to additional disorders such as substance abuse, memory problems, depression, as well as physical problems. The condition can be very difficult to treat; currently, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is considered a ‘gold standard’ treatment.

Interestingly, Action Against Hunger recently published results of their studies, which indicate that 75 per cent of parents of malnourished children have PTSD symptoms. PTSD leads to behavioral changes that affect the extent to which parents can properly care for their children. Even babies can show symptoms of stress, refusing to eat or displaying other symptoms that parents may not even realize are indicative of a serious problem.

Malnutrition can also affect children in more subtle ways, since it skews their relationship to food. Eating disorders are often thought of as a ‘first world’ problem, yet numbers of sufferers in third world countries are rising as well. Having to go through long periods of starvation can affect a child’s view of food. Thus, in their adolescence or even in their 20s, they may resort to bingeing (or bingeing and purging as in bulimia), since they can become guilty knowing that many others in their community or surroundings, are going hungry. Eating disorders are a dangerous conditions, taking more lives than any other mental illness, including depression.

In areas like Bangui, in the Central African Republic, there are teams in pediatric hospitals which offer free counselling and treatment for children who are severely malnourished. There, parents can learn more about how malnutrition can affect children in the short- and long-term, and the many ways in which food scarcity can cause trauma. Parents should also be able to avail of family therapy, since they need to learn how to rebuild bonds that may have been destroyed by poverty, disease, death and devastation. In order to fight the powerful effects of malnutrition, it is vital to preserve the physical and mental health of adults and children alike, to break free of a cycle that has already taken countless lives.

Author Anne Foy