Health Effects of Famine

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 17, 2022

Famine is more than hunger and extreme lack of food. It’s a disaster – both natural and human-made -- that leads to widespread malnutrition, starvation, disease, and death.

You’ve probably heard of the Irish potato famine, which killed an estimated 1 million people during the mid-1800s and led to an exodus of Irish emigrants. During the world’s largest famine in China, some 30 million people starved to death between 1959 to 1961 amid the Communist nation’s push for industrialization. 

But famines still exist today, including in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, and other parts of Africa. Children make up about half of those affected. 

How Is Hunger Measured?

Experts use an international scale called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification to identify five phases of food emergencies:

  • Level one: Households have enough food and basic goods. 
  • Level two: People get the minimal amount of food they need, but they have trouble getting fuel and other essentials.
  • Level three: Families don’t have enough to eat or must sacrifice other needs to get food.
  • Level four: People are malnourished or dying of hunger, or must take drastic actions to avoid starvation.
  • Level five: Extreme lack of food leads to malnutrition, poverty, and deaths. This is when an area is declared to be in a famine.

Specifically, a famine happens when:

  • Over 30% of people in an area lack enough food
  • One out of every five households in an area have severe food shortages
  • At least two out of every 10,000 people die each day

What Causes Famine?

Famines can stem from many factors. Extreme weather can set it off. Poor government policies can worsen famines or make them last longer. Factors that can bring on famine include:

War. Violence and conflicts are a top reason that drive people to hunger. War pushes refugees from their homes, cuts food production, destroys roads and infrastructure, and displaces people from jobs and income they need to buy food.

Droughts and other extreme weather. In areas like East Africa, lack of precipitation has become more common because of climate change. This region has had the highest temperatures and driest weather conditions anywhere in the world in the last 40 years.

Pandemics. The economic disruption from COVID-19 worsened poverty in some parts of the world, edging vulnerable people closer to starvation.

The world has plenty of food, even if certain regions are in a famine. The challenge is to get the food to the people who are starving. 

Who’s at the Greatest Risk for Famine?

According to the United Nations, some 828 million people went hungry in 2021, a global record. An estimated 50 million of those people in 45 countries live on the verge of famine. Women are more likely than men to lack enough food. Most vulnerable are those who need extra nutrition, including children, young girls, and people who are pregnant or breastfeeding. 

Famine can not only kill, but it can leave long-term effects on survivors and on society. Kids and infants are at a higher risk than adults from famine because it’s harder for their bodies to regain strength. Children who live through a famine might have stunted growth, be weaker, or be more likely to die of illnesses later. Their future children also are more likely to be born too early or be underweight.

Famines can wipe out an entire generation of children and adults. 

Can We Stop Famine?

Famines are predictable. Preventing them requires global cooperation and smart economic and government policies. Countries such as Ethiopia sharply lowered their risk of famine in recent decades, thanks to better farming practices, improved roads, and cash subsidies for households most vulnerable to hunger.

Some strategies to prevent famines or to lessen their impact include:

Clean water and sanitation. They help people avoid diseases like cholera and Ebola and to better absorb nutrients from the food they eat.

Smarter humanitarian aid. Getting food and medicine quickly to areas under famine can avert disease and deaths. Families won’t have to leave home in search of food. In some regions, cash assistance works better than direct food distribution.

Agricultural investments. Fertilizers, high-quality seeds, and larger cooperative farms can pay off in bigger harvests.

Stronger economies. More jobs mean more money to buy food. Building more rural roads help farmers get their crops to market. Wealth helps a nation better afford food it must import. 

Combat climate change. The rising average temperatures on Earth raise the chances and severity of drought, flooding, and other extreme weather. It will take a coordinated global effort to meaningfully lower the emission of greenhouse gasses. 

Show Sources


British Medical Journal: “China’s Great Famine: 40 Years Later.”

Oxfam: “What is Famine? Causes and Effects and How to Stop It,” “Catastrophic Hunger Spiralling.” “What is Famine? How It’s Caused and How to Stop It.”

Mercy Corps: “The Facts: What You Need to Know About Famine.”

UK Parliament: “The great famine.”

World Food Program USA: “What causes famine in the world?”

World Food Programme: “SOFI report: Record hunger on the rise, UN study says,” “Act now on climate crisis or millions more will be pushed into hunger and famine.”

International Food Policy Research Institute: “Ethiopia’s 2015 drought: No reason for a famine,” “Strategies for preventing recurring famines and building resilient food systems.”

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