In an interview in Rome, where world leaders are meeting to discuss global food shortages, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said soaring commodity prices stood to threaten the lives of sick people, pregnant women, and children.
"We are already beginning to see signs that the world has close to one billion people who are suffering from hunger," she told Reuters, adding that more people will die from "different types of morbidity" if the problem worsens.
People with HIV/Aids and other immune-destroying diseases need good nutrition to remain healthy, and those made weak by diarrhoea, pneumonia, malaria and measles would become sicker or die if they cannot eat well, the United Nations agency chief said.
High food prices hit poor the hardest
Adequate food is also key to keeping pregnant and lactating women and their babies alive, and necessary to ward off malnutrition that can stunt the growth of children, she warned.
"Their conditions will be further exacerbated because of malnutrition," she said.
"For healthy people like you and me, the food crisis hit our pockets. But for the poor people, it means less food. The quantity and the quality of their meals will suffer," she said. "If food prices go up, it means they have less money for health services, because in many of these countries these people depend on out-of-pocket expenditure for health services."
According to WHO analysis, 21 countries already have serious acute or chronic malnutrition, and dozens more are struggling to cope with a high burden of disease that could be made worse by food shortages.
Those seen most vulnerable are Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Laos, Madagascar, Mali, Myanmar, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Timor-Leste and Yemen.
Food crisis has set back fight against poverty
Chan said that the WHO, which sets global health standards and leads the fight against infectious and chronic diseases, would intensify its monitoring for malnutrition and related ailments in response to the current crisis.
The WHO will also work closely with other UN agencies to keep a close eye on the spread of H5N1 bird flu and other animal and plant ailments that could threaten food supplies as well as public health, Chan said.
She said that rising food costs, linked to poor weather, the use of crops for bio fuels, and commodity market speculation, had hurt international efforts to reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, and fight diseases such as tuberculosis.
"This food crisis alone set back the progress we made in poverty reduction by seven years," Chan said. – (Reuters Health)
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