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Protein Deficiency Takes a Toll on Public Health

Updated on July 5, 2012
Symptoms of kwashiorkor, or dietary protein deficiency.
Symptoms of kwashiorkor, or dietary protein deficiency.

Many relief organizations purchase television time to highlight the hardships and sufferings of African children. The flies, the distended stomachs and the faces conveying imminent death are not just marketing images to tug heartstrings and open wallets. In fact, these realities are well-documented and – without radical changes at the local level – continue unabated. While starvation is the most severe of the conditions afflicting young Africans, lowered immunity and the diseases that attend it are widespread on the continent. Recovering from decades of corrupt and ineffective governments, the Republic of Uganda has no shortage of afflicted children. Among the causes of their myriad illnesses, protein deficiency ranks high.

Breast milk is a temporary prophylactic against the omnipresent diseases that, like roaming lions, seek to devour their victims. A blog post by a relief organization of medical students provides an illustration of the ravages suffered when this precious source of nutrition is absent:

The child’s eyes were dull, his hair a few blondish wisps on a dry skull. His tiny limbs were mere bones draped in shriveled skin, and his head lolled on his neck as if about to fall off completely. His name was Alfred, and he suffered from severe malnutrition, since his mother had died and was unable to breastfeed him. Without breast milk’s protection, babies in the rural villages of Uganda face a grim prognosis.

Insufficient dietary protein among infants and children – though adults can also be subject to this – is referred to as kwashiorkor among continental Africans. The central diet staples where kwashiorkor is prevailing are normally cereal crops like cassava, rice and yams. Symptoms include muscle wasting, edema (swelling of tissue), lesions, small intestine erosion, liver enlargement and pancreatic deterioration. While these conditions are hazardous each in their own right, the compromised immunity brought about by kwashiorkor makes the likelihood of contracting malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis and a variety of infections much greater.

Victims of this condition consume a narrow range of food sources, principally starchy foods lacking in protein and vitamins. In the last decade, the Ugandan government identified three underlying roots of malnutrition and food insecurity:

1. Undervalued labor – low wages; lack of technological resources and know-how

2. Dearth of adequate land on which to subsist

3. Scarcity of jobs and business opportunities

In its 2004 Food and Nutrition Strategy and Investment Plan, the government frequently returns to the subject of time-worn agricultural practices and how they hinder both commercial and subsistence farming. On the production end, the government decries “Over-dependence on hand hoe cultivation technology and backward agricultural development practices.” Acknowledging the existence of other systemic obstacles to distribution, upgrading on-farm practices generates higher levels of production simply by accomplishing more per hour.

The allocation of arable land has long been a bone of contention between Ugandans and their government. In the 1970s, the dictator Idi Amin appropriated all land in Uganda on behalf of the state. This law was rebuked and rescinded by the Land Reform Act of 1998 which resumed the traditional clan-based system of land ownership and conveyance. Seeking to update these ancient rules for a modern economy, President Yoweri Museveni faces resistance from several quarters, most of which object to a perceived bent toward foreigners investors. Consequently, the dearth of land available for growing an adequate food supply may not improve without cooperation among the people, the government and those non-profits that direct resources toward land-based projects.

As entrepreneurship and investment gradually take hold in Uganda, the availability of jobs may expand, albeit just as incrementally. In the mean time, micro-enterprises are creating opportunities where none previously existed. Agricultural ventures like pig-raising are relatively low-tech yet provide a long-term source of income generation. The Uganda Rural Fund actively promotes its Piggery Project in rural villages throughout the country. Kyklou International, on the other hand, has partnered with St. Mary Kevin Orphanage to establish SMK Farms, a 100-head hog operation that also processes corn for feed. From the proceeds of this business, children are fed, clothed and educated.

The establishment of working farms by charitable groups in Uganda addresses the three-fold cause of kwashiorkor. First, they introduce updated farming practices to the local populations. Next, they partner with people or groups that have long-established and recognized claims on their land. Finally, depending on size and scope, these farms teach skills and provide work experience for the men, women and children in their employ. Greater local availability of pork is also good news to the protein-deficient.


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