Somalia may never fully recover from famine Lack of children under age 5 indicates trouble

December 10, 1992|By Cox News Service

As U.S. troops move into Somalia to help bring relief t masses of emaciated people, health and social experts say the famine has wiped out so many children that the African nation may never fully recover.

They question how much good can be done now in a country where an important segment of society -- children under age 5 -- has been decimated by the lack of food.

A report due to be released tomorrow by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says that in the Somalia town of Baidoa, which has been particularly hard hit by the famine, a survey last month found only 9 percent of the population was children under age 5. Normally, in a developing country, that age group makes up 20 to 25 percent of the population.

"These figures really are astounding," said Dr. Tony Marfin, a CDC epidemiologist who just returned from Somalia. "A developing country like Somalia should have 20 to 25 percent of its population under age 5 to help ensure its future, because this is where future leaders and workers will come from."

He said the level of starvation in Somalian adults and children "is about some of the worst ever seen."

A healthy person can survive a 40-day fast, based on research done with conscientious objectors during World War II. The COs volunteered to go without food for experiments. There were no permanent ill effects as long as volunteers received vitamin and mineral supplements.

In Somalia, however, people have suffered through years of drought, war and famine. People were deficient in vitamins and minerals. Many were weakened by disease when food became critically short this summer.

Other experts say the prolonged lack of food may have done so much damage to Somalia's population that it may never recover fully. For instance, during a famine, a woman's fertility plummets to nearly zero, and some studies suggest that her ability to have children may be permanently damaged by malnutrition.

Even if women do recover and start having babies, the sudden increase in infants may put a severe strain on food supplies and health services.

Some studies suggest that severely malnourished children have brains smaller than average size, and malnutrition may cause genetic abnormalities and behavioral problems in young children.

"The better studies suggest that malnourishment in children has long-term effects on learning," said Dr. William Dietz, head of pediatric nutrition at the New England Medical Center in Cambridge, Mass.

He said relief workers will not be able to go into famine-struck areas and simply start giving food to starved people. "That can be dangerous in itself," he said.

The sudden availability of nutrients can throw a starved person into heart failure, since the heart may have been "chewed up" by the starvation process. Deprived of food, the body first eats up fat reserves, before consuming muscle mass, including the heart.

Without food, the body eventually reaches a point at which it has no more reserves on which to draw. Children are the most vulnerable. Once they reach severe malnutrition, it is almost impossible to save them without intensive hospital treatment.

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