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Malnutrition Threatening Poor Guatemalan Children

Last year's drought in Central America destroyed crops that many families rely on. Emergency aid is in short supply.

November 10, 2002|Will Weissert | Associated Press Writer

INGENIO DE GUARAQUICHE, Guatemala — Elvin Munesh hadn't eaten in five days, but he let the wedge of apple that the aid worker had just given him dangle in his fingers.

The toddler, wearing a tiny blue Mexico Soccer baseball cap, didn't have the strength to cry or crawl, and his bony arms were too weak to lift the fruit to his lips, which had begun to turn black from malnutrition.

"He was doing better, but then last week his mother gave birth to another baby. Nobody fed him after that," said Lastenia Guerra of Alliance Against Hunger, a Spanish humanitarian group that runs a food distribution center in Ingenio de Guaraquiche, a village near Guatemala's border with Honduras.

Elvin's parents have four other children they are struggling to feed and didn't have the time or resources to take a break from their subsistence farming and go with him to the distant hospital, aid workers said, adding he probably wouldn't survive.

Last year, Central America suffered its worst drought in 20 years, wiping out $189 million worth of corn, beans, sugar and coffee, and leaving thousands of farming families with nothing to eat. Although the rains did come this year and authorities are optimistic about the harvest, emergency aid is running low while the crops ripen.

No country was hit harder than Guatemala, where the U.N. World Food Program says hunger killed at least 125 infants last year. Unofficial estimates of the dead are twice as high.

In March, the World Food Program began a $4.8-million emergency aid program that fed nearly 155,000 Guatemalans, 6,000 of whom were children under 5 who were in danger of dying.

The government also opened 74 nutrition centers that saved the lives of nearly 9,000 people in the hardest-hit areas, the Health Ministry says.

"These people live so close to the margin that malnutrition is always a problem," said Lola Castro, a director of the World Food Program's Guatemala office until October. "Even when there is no drought, thousands of people are in danger."

Funding for the agency's emergency program was scheduled to run out this month but has been extended through February. The government's nutrition clinics are more strapped for cash and began closing at the end of August.

"The drought showed the country just how grave problems of malnutrition were. When the funding is gone and the aid from the drought stops, the people will go back to dying, with few outsiders noticing," said Kevin Mendez, head of a government food center in Jutiapa, a city more than two hours by four-wheel-drive from Ingenio de Guaraquiche.

Before the drought, United Nations figures said that half of Guatemala's children were malnourished and that more than 60% of its workers earned less than $2 a day.

"The drought programs should be the beginning of aid that lasts for years, not aid that ends in less than one year," said Candido Barillas, a Health Ministry spokesman. "But there aren't funds to help everyone forever."

In Mendez's one-room clinic, eight mothers and their 11 malnourished toddlers were arranged around six hospital beds. A metal fan did little to ease the stifling heat or disperse the flies that landed on the infants.

"We have saved the lives of 74 children here. Four of those who came died," said Mendez, pausing to squash a cockroach that raced up a children's height chart. "When we are gone, 78 out of the next 78 gravely malnourished children may die."

Even while aid programs are still available, most dangerously ill children never make it to clinics or hospitals.

Malnourished children are everywhere in Ingenio de Guaraquiche, a village of 900 people, most of them Chorti Mayan Indians. It is little more than a collection of cinderblock hovels built into muddy hills among palm and banana trees.

Official statistics for the village aren't available, but locals said hunger had killed more than 40 people in the last year.

Enqunao Mendez's 3-year-old son, Merced, died in December from diarrhea and malnutrition. Four months later, Mendez, who is not related to the director of the state clinic, gave birth to Marcelda, her seventh surviving child.

"There was no food. There was nothing we could do," Merced's mother said. "We watched him, there in his bed, waiting to die."

Wailing with hunger in a sweat-stained hammock in the family's log hut, tiny Marcelda looked as if she could face the same end as her brother. But Enqunao Mendez shrugged off suggestions that she go to the Alliance Against Hunger food center just across a hilltop soccer field.

"God will decide whether my children are healthy," she said. "I don't have time to worry about such matters. There are too many children to care for."

At the center, Guerra bent down to little Elvin -- nearly 2 years old but weighing less than a healthy 4-month-old -- and helped him raise the apple slice to his mouth. As Elvin sucked and chewed, bits of apple fell on his bare stomach, bloated and doughy from lack of food.

"There was one more mouth to feed and one of the family members lost out," Guerra said. "That's the way it usually works around here."

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