Food and the Myanmar crisis: Q&A with Martin Bloem, Chief of WFP's nutrition and HIV policy unit

Published on 13 May 2008

Disasters such as the Myanmar cyclone can have a devastating effect on survivors who are already suffering from malnutrition. WFP nutritionist Martin Bloem tells web writer Michelle Hough how WFP invests in boosting people's nutritional status both before and after catastrophes strikes.

Introduction

Disasters such as the Myanmar cyclone can have a devastating effect on survivors who are already suffering from malnutrition. WFP nutritionist Martin Bloem tells web writer Michelle Hough how WFP invests in boosting people's nutritional status both before and after catastrophes occur.

What are the health risks to the people affected by Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar?

When disasters such as the Myanmar cyclone strike, various things can happen. Food supplies may be interrupted, people often lose their crops, diarrhoea may break out due to a contaminated water supply, the risk of water-borne diseases such as cholera is increased and malaria may strike where there are pools of stagnant water.

From a nutritional point of view, diarrhoea can be especially

A simple illness such as diarrhoea, which is easily treatable and not dangerous for a healthy child, can kill a child that is malnourished

destructive as it means people lose essential nutrients.

If people drink enough fluids, eat the right food and aren't malnourished to start with, they won’t die from diarrhoea.

Children who don’t have adequate levels of vitamin A have a 30 percent greater chance of dying if they get diarrhoea, and providing them with adequate amounts of clean water may be challenging.

Infectious diseases, on the other hand, suppress appetite while at the same time they increase a person’s need for vitamins and minerals to help them fight illness.

How does WFP help people in emergencies?

Initially, we often distribute high-energy biscuits (HEBs) to the survivors. In Myanmar, WFP is dispatching and distributing the 55 tons of HEBs that it has flown into Myanmar so far.

This is really very little: it is just enough for about 17,500 people for one week.

HEBs are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals and ensure people’s health doesn’t deteriorate too much as a result of disruptions caused to the food supply.

HEBs are a convenient stop-gap measure as they are also easy to transport and distribute and do not need any cooking.

Will there be longer-term effects for Myanmar’s cyclone survivors?

One of our main concerns following disasters such as the one in Myanmar is how they affect children.

It’s vital that children between 6 and 24 months receive nutritious food, because if they don’t, they will suffer long-term damage such as stunting (short stature). This is related to poorer school performance, reduced adult income and lower birth weight of their own offspring.

We already know that in Myanmar child malnutrition rates are at 32 percent (stunting, source: State of the World’s Children 2008, UNICEF).

If children’s access to the right foods is further reduced because of the after-effects of the cyclone, they will suffer life-long consequences.

As I said before, a simple illness such as diarrhoea, which is easily treatable and not dangerous for a healthy child, can kill a child that is malnourished.

What has WFP been doing in Myanmar and what will it do in the long-term for both children and adults?

WFP was already distributing food to vulnerable groups in Myanmar as part of its relief programme before the cyclone struck.

These rations included rice, pulses cooking oil, fortified blended food (FBF) and salt. This is a basic food basket for the general population and includes extra FBF for young children and pregnant and lactating women.

We were helping people with HIV/AIDS and TB, and we were also providing food to vulnerable school-aged children, adolescent girls and women in order to increase access to formal and non-formal education and support skills-development and community development projects.

In general, how is WFP working to improve its work in disasters?

From a nutritional point of view, the next few years are going to produce some interesting developments for WFP.

I’m a firm believer in what WFP is doing because I think we can make a huge difference over the next few years

We are working with public and private partners on the contents of our food basket, with the aim of better meeting the nutritional needs of the different target groups (young children, malnourished individuals, pregnant women and people suffering HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis etc).

We already try as much as possible to give people foods that are culturally acceptable to them, for example, rice in Asia and maize in parts of Africa.

Boosting nutrients

The new basket will include a wider range of foods and complementary food supplements (such as micro-nutrient supplements - or "sprinkles" - and ready-to-use-foods) to ensure that everyone’s nutritional needs, especially those important for children’s growth, are met.

A large part of WFP’s work includes preventing malnutrition. This means that when disaster strikes, the effects are cushioned as people are in a better nutritional position to cope with disease or a break in food supplies.

I’m a firm believer in what WFP is doing because I think we can make a huge difference over the next few years. We will improve the food basket and we will be able to reach many more children and reduce malnutrition rates – as long as we have adequate funding.

WFP is a massive organisation, but when we move, we are fast and effective and reach large numbers of people. This year alone we're feeding over 70 million people; and with rising food prices driving people into hunger, there could be many more.