Journey to Guatemala: Understanding Chronic Malnutrition

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It is encouraging that infant mortality rates across the globe have decreased in the past 30 years, but for those babies who are starved, physicians and other health care providers caution that malnutrition results in health issues which last a life time.

In North and South America, the nation which has the most malnutrition is Guatamala. There, approximately 55 percent of children are so undernourished that their growth is permanently damaged. Both physically and developmentally, too, they are far under what other children of comparable age are like, and the effects of stunted growth stays with them forever. Right now, Guatamala is trying to reduce that awful statistic with a coordinated nutrition program.

To give an idea of what goes on in Guatamala, look at the “average” household. Mid-day, a Guatamalan mother named Christina cooks dinner with beans–the staple of that nation’s diet. She has no meat and no vegetables to give to her children, and the beans have very few of the appropriate vitamins, minerals and other nutrients which growing youngsters need for proper growth.

Estimates show that about 8 out of 10 children in Guatamala are stunted in their growth. Christina sees that her eldest 3 children have not grown well, but she wishes for better with her youngest daughter, Lupe, who is a year old. Some people do think that families may fare better nutritionally in the days to come–in other words, that the future is brighter for these young families.

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I made the journey to Guatamala to meet Christina where she and her family dwell close to the town of Chinautla. Christina is mother to 5 children, and they age in range from 6 to 13. Lupe is 1 year old. I was very surprised to see the difference in height between Christina and me.

Up until recently, people felt that Mayans were just short people in comparison to individuals of other ethnicities. People of the Mayan highlands see that they are all of similar height, and the prevailing opinion is that the height must be genetic.

However, while genetics may play some role in how these people look as adults, the height deviations in Guatamalan children really begin just months into their lives. The babies are trending toward stunted growth very early on. As a mother, Christina understands that the growth problem is still a very real and present danger to her baby, Lupe. As such, she takes Lupe to a health center every 4 weeks so she can be weighed and charted accurately.

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The health center, run by the humanitarian group called Mayan Families, concentrates on small children within the first 1,000 days of their lives. Data shows that the time between a pregnancy and a child’s second birthday is critical to the development of the brain and to growth of the body. Development, which should be accelerating, actually slows down when children are malnourished and not getting the right nutrients in the correct quantities. It is practically impossible for the physical losses to be remediated even when nutrition improves later on.

Many research findings demonstrate that chronic malnutrition affects how well a child grows and develops. In addition, poor nutrition adversely affects IQ and increases the chances for the individual to develop diabetes, heart disease, kidney problems and anemia later in adult life.

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Today, the local health care providers have learned that baby Lupe is not trending toward the proper height and weight for a child of her age. She is far too little. Her family members participate in counselling designed to educate them on how important good nutrition is to the development of a young child. They hear about how important fish, vegetables and meat are to the daily diet.

guatemalan-1children341Mayan Families has a limited amount of monies available to assist local families in getting their own chickens so they can have eggs and in obtaining goats for milk. Other people get small quantities of food right from the government in Guatamala. To date, baby Lupe’s family has not gotten any government food or assistance. When the family starts the uphill journey back home, they take with them some rice, beans and oil which are provided by the United States Agency for International Development.

Director of Mayan Families in Guatamala, Jose Mendes, states that the problem of reaching all the local families who need nutritional support is a big one. It will take a large shift in the structure of the country. While Guatamala has the biggest Gross Domestic Product or GDP in all of Central America, its indicators of widespread and chronic poor nutrition are by far the worse in that region. What are the reasons for that staggering discrepancy?

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The variables that play into the malnutrition problem in Guatamala are complex. Economic structure and poverty comprise only part of the situation. In the midst of this complex, and puzzling situation, is the agricultural output of Guatamala. The farming areas in the country are prolific–literally brimming with vegetables, but very few of them actually end up on the dinner tables of local families.

For instance, we stood in this beautiful, green and growing valley. Lettuce, green beans and cabbage were literally everywhere. How is it that there is so much fresh food and so many kids who are malnourished? This is a strange and very sad paradox. It begs the question, “Where is all this outstanding produce going if it is not in the hands of the locals?”

The answer is that the farmers do harvest their produce, but hardly any of it stays right where it has been grown. Instead, the vegetables will be trucked away and exported to markets in Central America, Europe and the United States.

Consider this situation. Sofia Romero has a 4-month-old daughter named Camila. She has little Camila on her back while she toils at weeding pea fields by hand. When Sofia was asked if she would use some of the peas for her breast-fed baby, she said that her preference is beans and corn–not the peas she was weeding so laboriously.

The problem of malnutrition really is deeply rooted. Many people think the answer lies with the government in the nation’s capital. The president of Guatamala has begun an initiative to combat malnutrition in the native children and to reduce it by 10 percent over the next few years.

The president feels it is important to spend more money on health care, particularly for children during the first 1,000 days of their lives. Also, he wants more emphasis placed on nutrition education.

Now, in Guatamala City it seems that there is a growing awareness of the malnutrition problem. This awareness has developed just over the past couple of years. Still, in the midst of a bustling city, it is hard to realize that such a huge problem as child malnutrition exists close by.

In effect, there are 2 Guatamalas. The upside of the issue is that the zero hunger program, combined with an increasing awareness of the problem, is bringing the 2 Guatamalas together.

Some people think that the poverty in Guatamala is so big and far-reaching that it stands in the way of solving the malnutrition issue. While the economic and cultural discrepancies are important, the real solution may lie in sensible interventions which have a real track record in combating malnutrition. With less malnutrition, poverty will diminish.

A really great part of this war on malnutrition happened when scores of government officials and leaders in the business community actually stayed in the homes of poor people in the countryside. These prominent individuals still talk about the experience when they meet at Alvaro Castillo’s company in Guatamala City.

These individuals say that there is a real vested interest for the business community. Malnutrition costs the country of Guatamala many millions of dollars in medical care costs, academic difficulties and losses in labor productivity. How could any nation be competitive on the global scene if its population staggers under the burden of malnutrition that begins when the youngest members of society are born? Truly, something must be done.

As such, many individuals wish to keep pressuring the government of Guatamala. No matter what the name of the program to combat it, malnutrition is a problem that requires attention from people in all walks of life in the country. Everyone needs to make a solid commitment to change the situation.

However, even if big change does happen, it will not be soon enough for little Lupe and her mom, Christina. While Christina understands what she needs to properly feed her baby–chicken, fresh vegetables, milk–she does not have the resources to do so. Beans and local herbs are the best she can do.

Go online, and learn all you can about child mortality on a global scale. Read about the nation of Guatamala and the efforts there to educate people on the important issue of child malnutrition.

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