Sunday, April 12, 2009

problem of poverty

Hunger and World Poverty

About 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations. This is one person every three and a half seconds, as you can see on this display. Unfortunately, it is children who die most often. 

Yet there is plenty of food in the world for everyone. The problem is that hungry people are trapped in severe poverty. They lack the money to buy enough food to nourish themselves. Being constantly malnourished, they become weaker and often sick. This makes them increasingly less able to work, which then makes them even poorer and hungrier. This downward spiral often continues until death for them and their families.

There are effective programs to break this spiral. For adults, there are “food for work” programs where the adults are paid with food to build schools, dig wells, make roads, and so on. This both nourishes them and builds infrastructure to end the poverty. For children, there are “food for education” programs where the children are provided with food when they attend school. Their education will help them to escape from hunger and global poverty. 

Hunger and World Poverty Sources: United Nations World Food Program (WFP), Oxfam, UNICEF.


AIDS is now second only to the Black Death as the largest epidemic in history. AIDS kills over 2 million people a year, or about one person every 15 seconds, as you can see here. This death toll surprisingly includes a lot of children, who are often infected with the HIV virus during pregnancy or through breast-feeding. 

The toll is worst in Africa, where millions of parents have died, leaving children as orphans. Often teachers have died as well, leaving schools empty. Doctors and nurses have died, leaving hospitals and medical clinics with nothing. Farmers have died, leaving crops in the fields. Entire villages have been devastated. 

Yet AIDS is a preventable and increasingly treatable disease. The huge majority of deaths can be stopped. Through education, the use of condoms, and proper medicine, AIDS has been brought under control in the developed countries. The same can be true in Africa and other poor areas of the world. 

Sources: Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), World Health Organization (WHO).


Diarrheal diseases such as cholera and dysentery kill about 1.6 million people each year, almost all of them children. Diarrhea is most often a result of unclean water, unsafe sanitation, or poor hygiene.

Strong, healthy people can recover from diarrhea in a few hours or days at most. However, individuals weakened by malnutrition or sickness often cannot recover and start losing large amounts of fluids and salts. Without treatment, this may continue until they actually die of dehydration. Children become dehydrated faster than adults.

The treatment for diarrhea is surprisingly simple. Called Oral Rehydration Therapy (ORT), it is a mixture of water, salt, and sugar that replenishes the lost fluids in the body. This basic treatment has helped reduce diarrheal deaths by about two-thirds in the last 25 years. It is perhaps the height of human tragedy that still so many parents must watch a son or daughter die of diarrhea when the cure is so simple and so inexpensive. It is not difficult to make sure that even severely impoverished people have access to clean water, sugar, and salt.

Sources: UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO), Rehydration Project.


In the entire history of humankind, it is believed that tuberculosis has killed more people than any other disease (in shorter periods of time, the epidemics of the Black Death and AIDS have killed more). Tuberculosis dates back to at least 4000 BC and was present in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India. Known as consumption, it was responsible for one in five deaths in 17th century London. 

Tuberculosis is highly contagious and spreads through the air from coughing. If not treated, a person with TB infects an average of 10 to 15 new people each year. Once thought to be under control, tuberculosis still kills well over 1.5 million people each year, a figure that is now increasing slightly each year. 

In 1995 the World Health Organization launched a multi-pronged tuberculosis program called DOTS (Directly Observed Therapy). Since then it has successfully treated more than 22 million tuberculosis patients. Funding is needed so that this effective program can expand to reach all the people who need it. 

Sources: World Health Organization (WHO), Stop TB Partnership.


Over a million people die from malaria each year and many millions more are seriously weakened by it. Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. One bite from an infected mosquito can mean weeks of fever and exhaustion, preventing children from going to school and adults from working to provide for their families. Close to 90% of malaria cases occur in Africa.

Although malaria is treatable with anti-malarial drugs, these are often not available in the poorest areas. The best cure is prevention, and the best prevention is mosquito nets for beds. This bed netting protects people from mosquitoes while they sleep at night, when the mosquitoes come out. 

The cost for a bed net is $6, but since people in Africa often sleep two or more to a bed, the cost per person is about $3. Ideally, every person in the affected areas of Africa would be provided with a bed net. Besides saving lives, this would be an excellent economic investment, as the cost of malaria to Africans in lost productivity alone is estimated in the billions of dollars each year. 

Sources: UNICEF,
World Health Organization (WHO).

Measles and Other Childhood Diseases

The so-called childhood diseases of measles, pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, and diphtheria are responsible for a little less than a million deaths per year. Of these diseases, measles takes the greatest toll. Fortunately, all of these diseases are preventable through inexpensive vaccines. Typically a child will receive one vaccine for measles and once vaccine for the other three diseases combined. 

Very recently, there has been great success with measles vaccinations. Between 2001 and 2005, the Measles Initiative, an international partnership backed by a number of organizations and individuals, vaccinated some 200 million children in poor countries. This cut the number of measles deaths by more than half.

At a cost of less than $1 per measles vaccination, this program shows how a relatively small amount of funding can make a huge difference in lives saved. There is no reason that this program cannot be extended to vaccinate all of the children who need it, provided enough funding is available. 

Sources: UNICEF, American Red Cross, World Health Organization (WHO).