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 November 1997    

Preventing the fatal conspiracy
A poor person's life is a dangerous one. Without money to buy enough food, a poor person can easily fall into a potentially fatal downward-spiralling trap of undernutrition and sickness. Poor nutrition lowers the body's resistance to illness, and illness aggravates poor nutrition.

Cells need protein and calories to grow. Without them, essential tissues and processes cannot develop properly. Among the tissues affected by undernutrition are the mucous lining and muscular wall of the intestine. If these are weakened, food is not absorbed efficiently. In addition, undernutrition may lead to slower production of antibodies and white blood corpuscles, resulting in lowered resistance to infection. Even where undernutrition is not a direct cause of death in the person, it may have contributed by making him or her more liable to sickness.

And sickness has a drastic impact on undernutrition. Disease increases the need for food. In fever, the body's metabolism speeds up and it burns more energy. At the same time disease usually reduces the intake of food. The sick body consumes less food than normal and does not even absorb very well what it does consume.

Undernutrition and sickness bring concrete economic costs to the individual, the family and the country.

They reduce a person's productivity. Undernutrition causes a slowing of the brain's abilities: a tendency to be easily distracted and difficulty in concentrating on physical work. While labouring the individual will get tired more readily and need more frequent rest pauses.

Sickness slashes income. Acute illness may put the family breadwinner in bed. If it hits a poor farmer at planting or harvest time (as it often does, as the rainy season is always more unhealthy) it may be the first step on the road to debt or landlessness - poor people in poor countries have no social security to fall back on.

UNU researchers, working as part of the UNU's food and nutrition programme and at the University's Caracas-based Programme for Biotechnology in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNU/BIOLAC), are finding ways in which people can escape the undernutrition-sickness trap. They have recently held and will soon hold several training courses in Latin America to teach scientists and health practitioners there what people can do to break free.

From 29 September to 25 October, the UNU conducted a training course in Santiago, Chile, called "Food and Nutrition Policies and Programmes: We Can Learn from Each Other." The course dealt with food and nutrition problems facing poor countries with rapid economic and demographic transition. Its main focus was nutritional surveillance and epidemiology.

From 6 to 10 October, UNU/BIOLAC held a workshop for its Brucellosis Network members in Lima, Peru. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection, caught from farm animals and unpasteurized dairy products, that causes a feverish illness. The 16 Latin American participants attending the workshop exchanged the latest scientific information on the sickness and also had a chance to interact with their counterparts from Canada's Animal Disease Research Institute.

From 8 to 10 October, the UNU held an international workshop on the control of iron deficiency. Iron deficiency can cause anaemia. Perhaps a third of all men and two-thirds of women in poor countries are anaemic. Their largely vegetarian diets often contain much less usable iron than meat does, and stomach parasites such as hookworms siphon off a lot of the iron that is consumed. Anaemia causes diminished mental and physical capacities. Its effects are well known among menstruating or pregnant women: lack of energy, fatigue and reduced concentration. The workshop explored new ways of supplementing and distributing iron-enhanced food.

And the UNU is offering two upcoming courses in November. One is a workshop called "Leadership for Latin American Young Investigators." It is being held in Santiago and will give young food professionals a chance to improve their leadership skills so that they can better carry out their functions as teachers, planners and nutritional advocates. The other is a training course called "Expressions of Antibody Fragmentation in Bacteria and as Fusion Protein in Bacteriophage." It is being held in Havana and will teach participants about such techniques as extracting RNA from B cells, sequencing DNA and cloning single-chain fragment vectors.

All of these UNU training courses are helping to eliminate the health hazards that make a poor person's life so precarious.
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