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Refugee Population Affected By Obesity, Under-Nutrition

October 3, 2012

Both obesity and under-nutrition are common in women and children from the Western Sahara living in refugee camps in Algeria, highlighting the need to balance both obesity prevention and management with interventions to tackle under-nutrition in this population, according to a study by international researchers published in this week’s PLOS Medicine.

The authors, led by Carlos Grijalva-Eternod and Andrew Seal from the UCL Institute of Child Health in London, surveyed 2005 households in this refugee population who have been living in four refugee camps since 1975 and measured and weighed 1,608 young children and 1,781 women. They found that obesity and overweight in women affected more households than acute malnutrition, stunting and underweight in children: 9.1% children had acute malnutrition, 29.1% were stunted, 8.6% were underweight and 2.4% were overweight, while among the women, 14.8% were stunted, 53.7% were overweight, and 71.4% had central obesity.

Overall, the authors classified a third of households as being overweight, a quarter as undernourished, and a quarter as affected by the double burden of obesity and malnutrition.

These results are important: 15.4 million refugees (based on 2010 figures) are dependent on host governments and international humanitarian agencies for their food, so it is essential that these governments and organizations provide appropriate food assistance programs to refugees, especially long-term refugees.

The authors say: “The results raise crucial and challenging issues for the design of refugee assistance programs, and the future provision of care for obesity-associated comorbidities among Sahrawi refugees and other similar populations.”

They continue: “Careful policy and advocacy work will be required to convey the complexity of the situation, and to ensure that continued support for life-saving food assistance programs and the tackling of under-nutrition and nutritional deficiencies is not jeopardized as the threat of obesity to refugee health receives the attention it deserves.”

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