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Malnutrition, the silent epidemic

Photojournalist Ron Haviv traveled to Bangladesh to document a silent epidemic that may lack the drama to make the nightly news, but has the power to undermine a world’s worth of young lives: childhood malnutrition.

Working with humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, Haviv and six other members of the photo agency VII took their cameras to Mexico, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, India and Bangladesh to try to bring attention to an epidemic that affects an estimated 195 million children, according to Doctors Without Borders.

Malnutrition is not defined as a lack of food, but rather the right kind of food.

Every year, the U.S. provides more than half of the world’s food aid, at a cost of between $2 billion and $3 billion. That doesn’t stop at last three million children a year from dying of illnesses caused by malnutrition. A major reason is that in many cases we’re not sending the right kinds of food malnourished children need, according to a Doctors Without Borders.

Need to Know takes a closer look at the global malnutrition epidemic, the unexpected role that U.S. food policy plays in perpetuating it and some new ideas for improving nutrition for those who need it most.

‘Starved for Attention’ takes a photojournalist’s eye to malnutrition



  • Philip Harris

    Nice. On the first example tied to the malnutrition piece, you show a little girl, from Bangladesh I think, WITH LIPSTICK. Her parents don’t have enough money to feed her except every three days. But — there’s enough for lipstick.

    Huh? What’s wrong with this picture? Did Need-To-Know apply the lipstick?

  • Chris

    Okay, so we bash the ag lobbies and subsidies. That’s fine, they need fixed, no argument. We could certainly bribe the agricorporations in middle America to produce crops that actually have useful nutritional content.

    How about asking why birth control isn’t being encouraged to maintain a population level that can be supported by the indigenous agriculture IN ITS CURRENT FORM, while the native populations are educated on proper farming and preservation techniques?

  • Alex

    Theres a saying that Americans can be philanthropic, you just have to pay them first. The accuracy of that statement is born out in the buried details of the extent American mining corporations profit from the mineral rich countries of the Congo for one and have for Centuries. There are billions of dollars in profits being siphoned from rare earth strategic metals, precious metals and stone in Africa. Its what noone talks about, the ratio of philantropy to profit and what not alot of people bother to make enquiry into not even PBS, which reveals the extent to which its a hands off topic. The phenomenon is global and if it were otherwise poverty would be globally leveled off. The debt for resources that otherwise couldn’t be developed at some point in time is finally paid back and the benefits of where they fell should be returned to indigenous peoples. Only a scoundrel wouldn’t agree. The Heart of Darkness now reigns under a cloak of invisibility for whats called the industrialized world and our way of life. See Global Witness or Z for the light.


  • judy Reynolds

    I am furious watching this program on malnourished children, for a different reason than you may
    imagine. What ever happened to birth control? What ever happened to concern about overpopulation?
    I see on your Need to Know site one of the very FEW references to overpopulation, in the audio presentation listed on your sidte. Kudos to you for that. But on this malnourishment report–you act as if overpopulation is not a factor. Obviously, people in these countries are having more children than they can support. And this results in malnutrition — because there’s not enough food! And to be blaming the U.S. because it is not sending the highest quality food aid — I think you are way, way off base.

    What happened to the awareness that overpopulation is at the very root of ALL of the environmental degradation we have today? WHY is it such a sacred cow? Why do most media never mention it? WHY in all the hundreds of hours of coverage about the Haiti crisis, did i not hear ONE WORD about overpopulation–about families in Haiti having 8 and 9 children living on the side of a de-forested mountain in a shack with no hope of providing for them.

    So this program I am watching of yours…it is all about us — the U.S. — getting it together to feed the overpopulated planet. How about the people of this overpopulated planet hearing about birth control, family planning? What, are these folks in India and Africa and elsewhere unable to understand that fewer children mean a better life for the ones you have? I know, I know, there are cultural factors and agrarian societies want big famililes to till the fields, etc. etc.–it’s a challenge–but we aren’t even stepping up to the plate.

    This silence about overpopulation is ASTONISHING to me–I can only
    think it emanates from three sources: 1) religion. Religious people, whose numbers are increasing, are often in favor of large families– 2) the fear of seeming racist: since the
    starving, overpopulated countries are developing nations, the established nations do not want to criticize them about their birthrates as it might seem racist. — 3) head in the sand. Sound familiar? The fisheries are collapsing, global warming is going to wreak havoc, and on and on — so ya think maybe people should think twice about having big families? Naaa, that’s heartless and churlish–better to let them be born and then suffer.

  • Brendah

    Lipstick, birth control, and even a bracelet on the arm of the mother of the hungry little girl. Surely, those are insufficient reasons to be so unsympathetic, empathetic, about the plight of hungry people.They are here, in the world, and they need help. “There but for the grace of God, go I.” We are so fortunate to have been born in this country of plenty. Even in this terrible economy, “food” is available to those who are in need. “Hunger” bothers me, no matter where it exist! My husband and I don’t have a lot of material wealth, but with our meager income, we feel it is necessary to give a small amount to feed hungry people. We grow a lot of our own food, so we donate to the local food bank.

    I don’t think it was a coincidence that I watched “need to know” tonight. I had been meaning to watch, but had forgotten about the new program. Today, I received a letter from “Doctors Without Borders” requesting a donation. I tore it in half and threw it in the trash without having read its contents. After watching the program tonight, I dug it out of the trash, taped it, and am sending the minimum amount requested. Joined with other donations, I feel it will help. It doesn’t matter to me why they are hungry; it’s obvious. The fact is, they need help. Help with nutrition, education, medical attention and basic cleanliness. Judgement and criticism come cheaply, care for others comes at a price.

  • PBS Need to Know: Malnutrition, the Silent Epidemic » Starved for Attention

    [...] Need to Know takes a closer look at the global malnutrition epidemic, the unexpected role that U.S. food policy plays in perpetuating it and some new ideas for improving nutrition for those who need it most. [...]

  • kari

    As I read the comments on this page my heart got heavy…they are starving children they did not choose to be born and they should not pay for their parent’s mistake and I think that right now the governments in their countries are taking care of other issues, unfortunately thought to be more important. In Mexico they do have birth control programs in some parts, but in others its not availabe because its not accessable. In case you didn’t realize some people live where there are no roads and very rural areas. Why can’t people just help instead of judging. Why don’t you bring up awareness about the over population start a program or orgaization for it, I can’t, but I CAN and WILL DONATE WHAT I CAN…they’re children if you were the paren’ts of one of them…you’d pray for help not judgement.

  • Jon

    The image of the starving children being fed an American product that they neither needed nor could use because of its minor nutritional value (but of great value to the American farmers paid to ship it out) was sad. But after listening to the ‘Reverend David Beckmann’ one could posibly draw the same parallels about his “faith-based effort” pushing another American product – Jesus, neither needed nor useful, down the throats of starving children but only of great value to those in the army of Jesus. I am sorry that this issue was not raised during the discussion. Kids having to learn about white Jesus to get their empty bellies fed is, unfortunately, a well accepted form of child abuse in America and exported globally.

  • Judy

    Thank you for your excellent report! BRAVE CHILDREN! BRAVE MOTHERS! Malnutrition is epidemic worldwide, masked by obesity in the US! Still miss Moyers & Now, but you & Gwen & Eleanor “make” Friday nite! Thank you!