The global food crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine will kill millions, leave the hungriest more vulnerable to infectious diseases and potentially spark the world’s next public health disaster, the head of a major aid agency has warned.
A Russian naval blockade of Ukraine’s Black Sea ports has halted grain shipments from the world’s fourth-largest exporter of wheat and corn, raising the specter of shortages and hunger in low-income countries.
The aftermath of food shortages means many will die not only from hunger but also from weakened defenses against infectious diseases due to poor diet, Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, told AFP this week.
“I think we’ve probably already started our next health crisis. It’s not a new pathogen, but it does mean that people who are malnourished are more susceptible to the existing diseases,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of a G20 health ministers’ meeting in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta.
“I think the combined impact of infectious diseases, food shortages and the energy crisis… we can say that we’re talking about millions of extra deaths because of it,” he said.
World governments should minimize the impact of the food crisis by providing frontline health care to their poorest communities, who will be most at risk, said the British former banker who now heads the $4 billion fund.
“That means focusing on primary health care, that is health care that is provided in the villages, in the communities. Hospitals are important, but when you’re faced with this kind of challenge, primary care is the most important thing.”
– ‘Catastrophe’ –
Fighting the spread of the coronavirus has drained resources from the fight against tuberculosis, which claimed 1.5 million lives in 2020, according to World Health Organization data.
“It was a disaster for TB,” Sands said.
“In 2020, 1.5 million fewer people were being treated for TB worldwide, and tragically that means several hundred thousand people will die, but also that those people will infect other people.”
The health expert said solving the food crisis is now of paramount importance to help treat the world’s second-deadliest infectious disease.
The West and Ukraine accuse Russia of pressuring them into concessions by blocking essential grain exports to fuel fears of global famine.
Moscow counters that Western sanctions are responsible for deficits in the Middle East and Africa.
Under the title “Uniting for Global Food Security”, Germany will host a meeting on the crisis on Friday, including with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
“It’s the pandemic of the poor and that’s why it hasn’t attracted the same amount of investment in research and development,” Sands said, referring to tuberculosis.
“This is a tragedy because we know how to prevent, cure and get rid of this disease.”
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