Childhood Malnutrition in Afghanistan


Julian Omidi discusses the recent and very dramatic increase in childhood malnutrition hospital admittance in Afghanistan.

There appears to be an exploding hunger crisis in Afghanistan – one that is as fast-moving as it is inexplicable.[1]

Local hospitals are reporting an influx of malnourished children. The number of children admitted into hospitals for malnutrition and malnutrition-related illnesses has increased by 50 percent since 2012.

Local physicians are at a loss as to exactly why this is occurring. Ongoing violence is certainly a factor, but the issue has exploded only within the past year, while the conflict has been going on for more than a decade. Nevertheless, aid programs have been thwarted by political tensions and violence, and families that were on the cusp of desolation might have just been reduced to near-starvation.

Something else that has the medical community confused – the fact that the parents aren’t malnourished, even though their children are. There aren’t any food shortages or blighted crops.

Theories abound. Some doctors believe the blame lies in the culture. Women are sequestered from all non-familial outside influences, making reproductive health education difficult, and in many cases, impossible.

Because mothers often cannot devote the time and energy to breast feeding when they often have one child right after the other, another possibility is the lack of breast feeding in favor of nutritionally less-desirable powdered milk, rehydrated with stream water. In a nation where clean water is difficult to come by, this could lead to crippling gastric distress and babies’ inability to absorb vitamins.

While this phenomenon may seem like a catastrophe, Unicef doesn’t classify it as an official crisis. Even though the number of malnourished children spiked suddenly and without an identifiable cause, because the number is lower than the mandatory 10 percent of children under the age of five, the event cannot be labeled an emergency. The statistics show the percentage being approximately 7 percent, although the statistics are dubious.

Childhood malnutrition can lead to a host of developmental issues later on. Starvation can be fatal, but persistent, chronic malnutrition can stunt growth, inhibit cognitive development and leave the children vulnerable to disease. Widespread malnutrition among children could become a health crisis.

It is a pity that these conditions do not merit particular intervention by the Afghan Ministry of Public Health and Unicef when the consequences could be so dire. Nevertheless, some doctors believe that the admittance of children en masse might actually be a good sign. It is possible that the actual numbers of malnourished haven’t changed, but the public awareness that there are resources that can care for children now exists, and perhaps parents are better able to get proper medical care for their children.

By Julian Omidi

[1] Nordland, Rod: Afghanistan’s Worsening, and Baffling, Hunger Crisis New York Times 1/4/2014


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