Failed Leadership of the Health Sector in Addressing the 2008 World Food Crisis

By Charles Teller

Where have international nutrition and health sector leaders been during this serious 2008 crisis of spiraling food crises that are worsening food and nutrition insecurity among the most vulnerable in the world?

At a lively, standing room only session (#3302) on the 2008 Global Food Crisis Monday at the APHA meetings, the 4 panelists and moderator agreed that it was much more than a crisis. It reflected a longer term structural and systems issue related to food poverty, international trade, climate change, energy and environment. Case studies on India and Ethiopia helped to contextualize the intra-country discrepancies in undernourishment, stunting and wasting.

On my Ethiopian case, I contrasted the apocalyptic press statements in September 2008 of the UN ( FAO, WFP,Humanitarian Affairs) with my Oct. 20th interview with the well-informed Minister of Health of Ethiopia who felt that overall high inflation and energy costs, as well as drought, were more serious shocks  to health and nutrition of his people.  In presenting the long and short-term trends in food access and malnutrition in Ethiopia, I found that this discrepancy in information reflects the lack of representative and reliable data on the evolution of the situation, causes and immediate effects.

I concluded that an equally serious crisis lies within our own international nutrition and health community: it is the role of the health sector to measure and monitor biometric changes in the nutrition status of women and children in this world, analyze the determinants, sound early warning alerts, and recommend corrective actions. Where were the global health sector nutrition leaders, such as WHO, UNICEF, the UN’s Sub-Committee on Nutrition (ACC/SCN) ,etc.,  while WFP, FAO, World Bank and IFPRI were writing so much on the food, climate and economic  issues?

We confuse the world with inconsistent definitions of the nutrition and health indicators of the impacts of the food crisis. We use words like famine and starvation, undernourishment and undernutrition,  GAM and SAM, underweight, stunting and wasting, as well a vitamin deficiency.  The Oct. 16 World Food Day press releases I monitored highlighted  the FAO estimates (based on a complex model of expected dietary intake)  of 75 million increase of “undernourished” people in the world in 2007, and the simple IFPRI World Hunger Index (unweighted) of child mortality, child malnutrition and dietary intake were quoted most frequently.  However, little came out in the press from WHO using the more valid and reliable biometric measurement:  it was not highlighted in the just released World Health Report, 2008.

We in the IH section of APHA should acknowledge  “crisis” of leadership and action in our own global health circles. Let’s support the current Governing Board resolution on the Food Crisis, and work to strengthen the role of the health sector in the monitoring and surveillance of the effects, and what can be done in the health sector about it.

Hunger and malnutrition are much too important human rights abuses to leave to the food sector alone!

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