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Disease Plagues Mexican Children : Malnutrition, Infections Strike Babies as Standards Fall

October 18, 1987|MIRIAM JORDAN | Reuters

MEXICO CITY — More than half of the 2 million children born in Mexico this year will suffer malnutrition and infections, and doctors and researchers say the situation gets worse by the day amid the economic crisis.

Around 100,000 Mexican children die before their first birthday, according to the National Nutrition Institute (INN), and 60% of the deaths among children under 5 years old are related to nutritional deficiencies.

"The government has not demonstrated sufficient concern for this problem," said Dr. Adolfo Chavez Villanueva, senior researcher at the INN.

INN personnel must work with outdated statistics on children's health and nutrition because there has been no money for systematic field studies since 1980. But INN rural staff members say conditions are steadily worsening, Chavez said.

In an effort to survive, many families split up. The fathers seek work in the United States while the mothers and children move in with relatives, Chavez said.

"Society undergoes profound social changes," he said. "The poor must develop survival strategies." But not all manage.

At Mexico City's National Pediatric Institute, the nutrition unit is dotted with undernourished infants in toy-filled playpens to stimulate their minds and speed recovery--their heads shaven to make room for healthy hair.

Change for the Worse

Recent arrivals lie in cribs, grotesque babies with protruding bones and bug eyes on the border between life and death.

"If the 1979 figures have changed, they have changed for worse, not better," said Dr. Bartolome Perez Ortiz, director of the division.

"It is certainly consistent with the crisis that we are treating more cases--and more serious ones at a younger age."

Doctors say that many children also suffer gastrointestinal disorders or respiratory infections such as pneumonia, ailments that tend to be worse as the living conditions of poor people deteriorate.

Mexican Deputy Health Minister Jesus Kumate recently told a local newspaper that malnutrition in Mexico did not surpass 2%, a statistic doctors here said was misleading.

"This means 2% of malnutrition cases at any given moment are third-degree cases, which still amounts to 240,000 preschool children out of 12 million--one of the worst figures in the world," Chavez said. "And it does not include those who die even before they are hospitalized."

He and other experts blame the government for abandoning effective nutritional and farm policies in favor of incentives for commerce and industry. In 1982, the government dropped the Mexican Nutritional System (SAM), a program targeted toward improving food production, distribution and consumption.

Other Funds Cut Back

The debt crisis and corresponding austerity programs have led the government to cut back funds available for health and welfare. According to the World Bank, government health expenditures fell from 5.2% of gross domestic product in 1972 to 1.5% in 1985, while social security and welfare expenditures dropped to 11.9% from 25%.

The Mexican GDP itself has dropped back to 1980 levels as the recession has taken its toll on investment and expansion.

According to a 1986 INN report, Mexico does not have a fundamental food shortage. It does have a nutrition problem, exacerbated by what the INN described as a chaotic situation in food distribution.

The report noted that fertile soil in recent years had been devoted to cultivating export products such as strawberries, sugar cane and cattle instead of staples like corn and beans, a change that has contributed to a deterioration in the rural population's diet.

According to INN research, in some southern Mexican rural areas, 80% to 85% of the population is undernourished.

"We are feeding the world instead of our own people," Perez Ortiz said.

"Economists and nutritionists lack a common language. The government is too concerned with eliminating balance of payments deficit when the population's well-being is at stake."

Jose Fernandez, coordinator of the National Program for for Nutrition (PRONAL), a component of President Miguel de la Madrid's National Development Plan, rejected such criticism.

"When the country is short of resources, we are naturally accused of neglect or of misdirecting our priorities. But there are some priorities whose long-term effects have yet to become visible," he maintained.

Chavez said the government plans to sponsor conferences on the subject, but was skeptical. "This is just another circus to tranquilize the conscience of the high (upper) class."

A 1987 National Consumer Institute report said that while real income has decreased by up to 31% since 1976, the population has been forced to spend a greater percentage of its income on transportation, rent and health.

"People cannot avoid transportation expenses to get to work, or accommodation payments, but they can cut the quality and amount of their food," said Dr. Salvador de Lara, technical director of the institute.

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