Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Challenges in estimating the increase in the death rate among the malnourished

A 10-year-old and largely ignored United Nations report estimated that malnourished people die at a rate of about 36 million people per year, accounting for about 58% of worldwide deaths. Proper statistics aren't kept in many of the world's countries, so we don't know if this estimate is correct. However, even if the true value is quite substantially lower, this problem is still of massive proportions. I previously published an article that helps to wrap your head around the scope of the problem by comparing the number of deaths of malnourished people with the number of deaths due to World War II (by these estimates there are about 3 times as many deaths among the malnourished as compared with deaths due to World War II).

Admittedly the comparison is somewhat simplistic. Rather than compare the number of estimated malnourished people dying annually, ideally we would compare the expected increase in the death rate associated with people who are malnourished. If nourished people die at a given rate, we are interested in how much greater the death rate is among the malnourished coupled with how many malnourished people there are in the world.

Clearly, malnourishment is not the only factor affecting the elevated death rate among the malnourished. By virtue of not having enough money for an adequate supply of food, this section of the population typically also does not have the resources to access basic levels of medicine and often need access to hygienic sources of water. However, it likely is common for a hungry person's malnourished state to contribute to a premature death (for example through a variety of diseases exacerbated among those with nutrient deficiencies and low levels of immune system function etc.). If the poorest section of the world's population had living standards of the average citizen of the world, then it seems plausible that through improved access to adequate food, medicine and water many millions of lives could be saved - potentially each year!

Jacob Levman