What is malnutrition?

"When I arrived in early July the MSF logistician I had come to relieve gave me a warning: "Here, everything smells of death." - MSF logistician, Southern Sudan, 1998 When a person cannot take in sufficient nutrients to meet their needs, the body begins to waste away. First they lose fat, and then muscle. Once a child has fallen below 80% of the weight that is average for their height they are defined as malnourished. Malnutrition is usually one of the five major causes of death in any emergency situation. The others are diarrhoea, malaria, measles and pneumonia. Young children are more vulnerable to malnutrition than adults. There are several reasons for this. Children are growing quickly, so their relative needs for nutrients are greater. Also, they are incapable of ingesting bulky meals - they need small frequent feeds, and mothers may not be able to provide these during an emergency situation. And children are more prone to infectious diseases, which cut the appetite and also use up extra calories and other nutrients. When malnutrition affects an entire population, including older children and adults, the situation is called a famine.