RIGHTS: Disfiguring Disease Linked to Right to Food

Published on IPSnews, by Gustavo Capdevila, Aug. 7, 2009.

GENEVA, Aug 7 (IPS) – Noma, an ulcerous disease whose name comes from a Greek word that means “to devour” because it literally eats away at malnourished children’s faces in just a few months, is found in the developing world, mainly in Africa.

It attacks small children among the poorest of the poor. And although it can be easily treated by common antibiotics if caught in the early stages, 70 to 90 percent of its victims die. The disease is closely linked to malnourishment.

“The mere existence of this disease demonstrates that the right to food of the most vulnerable is being violated,” said Jean Ziegler, vice-chairperson of the United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, a group of experts created a year ago that held its third session in Geneva Aug. 2-7.

Ziegler told IPS that “noma is absolutely dreadful … Families in Africa are ashamed by it, and hide away their sick children” because of the stigma attached to the disease.

Noma or “cancrum oris” is an infective gangrene that generally starts as gingivitis or another kind of ulcer in the mouth. If treatment is delayed, it rapidly destroys the hard and soft tissues of the mouth and often the face, leaving its victims – mainly children between the ages of one and five – “horribly disfigured,” the expert said.

In his report to the Advisory Committee, Ziegler states that there are some 30,000 cases a year of noma worldwide.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says “noma, a debilitating orofacial gangrene, is an important contributor to the disease burden in certain low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Africa and Asia.”

The main risk factors are poverty, severe malnutrition, unsafe drinking water, poor sanitary practices, and debilitating infectious diseases like measles, malaria and HIV/AIDS.

The disease’s close association with poverty and malnutrition prompted Ziegler to propose that the Committee establish a link between noma and the right to food in the report that it is to submit to the U.N. Human Rights Council next March …

… The Advisory Committee can only examine issues that it is assigned by the Human Rights Council, and lacks the capacity to take the initiative to study new questions, as the Sub-Commission was able to do.

At Friday’s closing session of the Advisory Committee’s meeting, a representative from Pakistan pointed out that the Council had only instructed the Committee to focus on the discrimination suffered by persons affected by leprosy and their families; best practices with respect to the issue of disappearance of persons; education on human rights; and discrimination in the context of the right to food.

To these four issues, the Committee added in this week’s session proposals to study questions involving world peace and the rights of the elderly.

The Pakistani delegate recognised the independence of the Committee, but said “this did not mean they could work the way they felt like.” His viewpoint gave rise to objections from several members of the Committee. /END/2009. (full text).

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