By Morgan Turner
This past weekend, international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), otherwise known as Doctors Without Borders, brought an exhibit on malnutrition to Philadelphia in order to bring attention to the global nutrition crisis. Médecins Sans Frontières, created in 1971 by French doctors and journalists, now works in over sixty countries and provides assistance to people who are threatened by disaster, violence and/or neglect. An independent and impartial organization, MSF often speaks out on behalf of those who need assistance and promotes the use of improved medical practices. MSF also challenges aids systems to become more effective. In 1999, Médecins Sans Frontières was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its humanitarian efforts.
The exhibit presented by MSF, “Starved for Attention,” dealt specifically with the epidemic of childhood malnutrition. Médecins Sans Frontières provided an immersive and interactive snapshot of its procedures by setting up two field hospital tents across from the National Constitution Center at Independence Park in Center City Philadelphia. Walking into the tent, a group of us was welcomed by a team of volunteers who introduced us to an MSF physician who had just returned from doing aid work in Uzbekistan, a woman named Navneet. During her adolescence in India, Navneet had met an MSF doctor. Inspired by his work she, too, joined the organization after completing her medical residency.
Speaking with MSF physicians firsthand was an incredible part of the exhibit, as the physicians present were eager to answer all of our questions and talk to us about how we could get involved. They shared where they’d travelled with Médecins Sans Frontières and how they first got involved with it. Leo, another of the MSF physicians, was inspired by his travels to become a doctor with MSF. “It really woke me up,” he said. “We could’ve easily been born somewhere with no healthcare, no doctors. I do what I can.”
Good news, by the way, for those not expecting to go into medicine. “We need a whole array of people, it’s not just doctors,” Navneet told us. “Anyone can volunteer to work; help is always needed.”
Navneet gave us a tour of a simulated feeding center, explaining how malnutrition is diagnosed in the field. The organization passed out paper replicas of MUAC – or mid-upper-arm-circumference – bracelets, which categorize a child’s health by the circumference of his or her arm. These are used in the field on children under the age of five, to determine which of them have the most severe need of proper nutrients in their diets.
Nazneet invited us to assess exactly how shocking the size of a starving child’s upper arm is, explaining that malnutrition in childhood is especially appalling because the first three to five years of life are critical for development. To my shock and horror, I could only fit two fingers through the armband when it was sized to “severe malnutrition.” It’s hard to imagine that a four- or five-year old could have arms the circumference of a healthy newborn’s. Children at this stage of malnutrition usually have to be treated with F-100, a nutritionally balanced powdered meal replacement that is mixed with water and fed through a naso-gastric tube.
Other children who are not as devastatingly weakened by malnourishment can be treated with ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs), nutritional supplements which can prevent or ameliorate malnutrition. “This is revolutionary in the treatment of malnutrition,” Navneet said, holding up a packet of the nutrient rich paste. “Supplemental feeding can prevent malnutrition, and it’s not expensive”. In fact, each packet of nutritional supplement only costs about forty cents.
Why aren’t wealthier nations, especially the U.S., providing these supplements in sufficient quantity? Médecins Sans Frontières is touring the East Coast to raise awareness about this issue: our humanitarian food aid programs need immediate updating. Right now, the U.S. is supplying humanitarian aid food in the form of a specialized corn-soy blend cereal, known as CSB. While it may relieve hunger, it is nutritionally inadequate, and lacks animal protein altogether.
“If this is what we are feeding everybody, kids are going to end up malnourished,” Navneet said. Quality over quantity matters fiercely, where nutrition is concerned. Two hundred million children – that’s 200,000,000 – under the age of five are affected by malnutrition worldwide, with around twenty million suffering from its deadliest form at any given time.
Children require nutritionally dense food to be healthy, and the food our nation currently provides merely creates the illusion of a fix to end hunger and inadequate nourishment. For our help to be effective, we need better nutrition standards in our foreign aid food. Navneet succinctly drove the point home, saying, “No child deserves to be malnourished when we can provide food aid.”
Visit www.StarvedForAttention.org to find out more about MSF’s campaign to provide better food aid to the world and sign a petition pleading the US to reevaluate its aid programs and provide nutritious food instead of substandard cereals. It will be presented in Washington D.C. on Oct. 16th, World Food Day.