Humanitarian Health Action

Purpose statements for panels and sessions

WHO Conference on the Health Aspects of the Tsunami Disaster in Asia

Panel 2.11: Food security and nutrition


Following the Tsunami, the immediate needs were in terms of provision of health care, food, water, sanitation and shelter. Malnutrition rates were already high in the countries before the disaster. Combined with displacement, loss of caregivers, and poor environmental conditions, it was a situation that needed to be monitored. People who are malnourished are not only more susceptible to infections and at a higher risk of death, but infections can result in moderate malnutrition progressing to severe cases. There have been joint UN, NGO and Government initiatives to establish nutritional surveillance systems, including carrying out rapid nutrition assessments to identify the malnourished and look at underlying causes. Nutritional surveillance needs to be integrated with disease surveillance and food security assessments, and accompanied by local level work such as growth monitoring, promotion of appropriate infant and young child feeding, and improved maternal nutrition.

The predominant humanitarian response to acute food insecurity has been the provision of a general food ration to the affected groups. Supplementary feeding programmes have been targeted to the nutritionally vulnerable groups. These had the objective of reducing the prevalence of moderate malnutrition and associated mortality in malnourished children and other at risk groups such as pregnant and lactating women. Management of severe malnutrition including therapeutic feeding programmes have been planned at various levels, i.e. hospitals, health centres, and at the community/household levels.

Micronutrient deficiencies, especially anaemia is prevalent among women and children and needs to be prevented and controlled. WFP has been distributing fortified food items in the general and supplementary rations. HKI and other NGOs have been distributing micronutrient supplements to vulnerable groups.

Appropriate infant and young child feeding has been promoted. Responding to concerns about the large quantities of milk powder being sent into the region, WHO and UNICEF issued a joint statement on appropriate infant and young child feeding, cautioning caretakers and health staff about unnecessary use of milk powder and the need for monitoring the distribution to those who need it.

Key questions

  • There is general concern among donors that food aid needs are sometimes over-estimated while the potential for other (non-food) aid interventions to address food insecurity problems is not always adequately examined. How have assessments addressed food insecurity besides focusing on food aid requirements?
  • There remain substantial shortfalls in the way information generated by rapid nutrition assessments and surveillance systems is used. How can the management of nutrition information be improved including the ownership by the Governments?
  • What key nutrition interventions have been planned as part of the disaster response system? How can humanitarian response in nutrition, besides concentrating on short-term life-saving initiatives, include interventions that support livelihoods and build the capacity of local governments, health facilities and the communities? What mechanisms can be used for monitoring and evaluating these nutrition interventions?
  • What are the challenges and issues that still exist in relation to the response in nutrition and how can these challenges be overcome and issues resolved?