Famine and health

People waiting in line for food rations.
Newly arrived refugees who had fled the famine-hit Somalia wait in line at a refugee camp in Kenya.
EPA/D. Kurokawa

High risk countries

Famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan and the food security situation is of grave concern in 6 other countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, and Yemen. Very high levels of severe acute malnutrition have been reported in the the most affected countries.

South Sudan

Despite multiple humanitarian crises, including famine, the first round of the National Immunization Days of 2017 launched in March.

Between starvation and death, there is nearly always disease

Health is a key component in the response to famine. When there is a severe lack of food many people will die of starvation, but between starvation and death there is nearly always disease. When people don't have enough food to eat, acute malnutrition sets in and weakens the immune system.

When a person's immune system is weak, it becomes more susceptible to diseases that can be fatal.

Immediate public health risks

Severe food shortages are often associated with factors which increase the risk of communicable diseases, such as population displacement, lack of safe food and water, poor sanitation, overcrowding, collapse of preventive public health measures such as immunization and vector control, and lack of access to basic health services.

Integrated Phase Classification Acute Food Insecurity

The UN, in collaboration with partners, developed a 5-level classification system to help governments and humanitarian actors assess and respond to the need for food in a given country. Famine, classified as level 5, is a humanitarian catastrophe that occurs when the following conditions are met:

  • 20% of population face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope
  • acute malnutrition rates exceed 30% for children under 5
  • 2 deaths per 10 000 people, or 4 deaths per 10 000 children per day

Many other factors are considered in the Classification including pandemic illness, access to clean water, large-scale displacement, and social collapse.

Necessary immediate medical interventions include the medical management of severe undernutrition, but also the detection and control of deadly diseases such as measles, acute respiratory infections, malaria, diarrhoea and waterborne diseases.

This page links all WHO technical and general information and resources on food insecurity and famine

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WHO continues to scale up its response to reduce preventable deaths and diseases, and provide health services in famine-affected areas of South Sudan. WHO's famine response plan in South Sudan focuses on working with partners to prevent spread of diseases among people weakened by food insecurity.

Diseases related to famine


Cholera is transmitted through contaminated water or food and can rapidly lead to severe dehydration and death if left untreated.

Acute malnutrition

Acute malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies can be widespread among refugees and displaced people.


Outbreaks can result in epidemics that cause many deaths, especially among malnourished children.


Children whose immune systems have been weakened by undernutrition are at higher risk of developing pneumonia.


Malaria is a life-threatening disease caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through the bites of infected female Anopheles mosquitoes.

Diarrhoeal disease

Diarrhoea can last several days, and can leave the body without the water and salts that are necessary for survival.