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Guatemala's Kids Cry Out

April 28, 2002

A Reuters reporter recently asked Guatemalan farmer Luisa Vazquez how many children she had. "Three dead and four living," she answered. What killed them? The answer could be seen in the telltale swollen belly of the toddler clinging to her leg: easily preventable illnesses brought on by malnutrition.

Vasquez's story is far from unique. Between last September and February, at least 126 malnourished Guatemalan children have died of common colds or because they were too weak to swallow. The United Nations World Food Program says that 60,000 children under 5 in that Central American nation suffer malnourishment so severe that it threatens to kill 6,000 of them in the coming months. A widespread problem in many Latin American countries, chronic malnutrition hinders children's mental and physical development. In Guatemala, the level of children under 5 with acute malnutrition--the point where the spiral toward death begins--has climbed from 2.5% three years ago to nearly 16% today.

Guatemala stands out in the region for two reasons: the severity of the hunger and the lack of government response to those afflicted. These are mostly poor rural families beset by natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch, which hit in 1998, and serious droughts in the past two years that have wiped out their meager subsistence crops. Also, a sudden drop in coffee prices on world markets has caused more than half a million people to lose their jobs picking coffee in the highlands.

The U.N.-sponsored World Food Program has appealed to the international community for food and cash. Almost 9,000 metric tons of food--about 400 boxcars--is needed to feed the children for six months. This would cost about $5 million. So far, the only government response has come from the U.S. aid agency.

Guatemalans in the United States send approximately $584 million annually to relatives in the homeland. We encourage them to prime the pump of international donations to the relief effort. And we urge others to follow suit, so that the children of Guatemala soon get the food they so desperately need.

To Take Action: Tax-deductible contributions to Friends of the World Food Program may be mailed to P.O. Box 11856, Washington, D.C. 20008. (Write "Guatemala" at the bottom of the check.) Or go to www.friendsofwfp.org.

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