Guatemala's Children Languish from Malnutrition

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More than two million Guatemalans live in extreme poverty, and nearly half of the children in Guatemala are malnourished. In some areas, nearly every child is affected.

Most suffer from chronic malnutrition, which means that while they are getting enough calories, the food they eat is severely lacking in vitamins and protein.

As Samuel Loewenberg reports, this poor nutrition affects not only their bodies, but their future.


Samuel – off camera (Spanish): What is your name?

Little Girl: Domitila

Samuel – off camera: And how old are you?

Little Girl: Nine.

VO: Domitila is nine years old and she cannot smile. Her muscles are too weak. She is the face of hunger in Guatemala, which has one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world.

Dr. Evelin Nufio, from the Bethania Infant Nutritional Recuperation Center in Chiquimula, Guatemala (Spanish): The children usually come with thin hair that falls out easily, their skin is pale, these children are without joy, and their faces have a look of sadness.

VO: Nearly half the children in Guatemala are malnourished and in some areas nearly every child is affected. Most don’t reach a state as severe as Domitila, where their body begins to waste away. Instead, they have a more insidious problem, known as chronic malnutrition, which means that while they are getting enough calories, the food they eat is severely lacking in vitamins and protein. The poor nutrition affects not only their height, but their future.

Dr. Juan Aguilar, the Guatemalan Secretary of Food Security and Nutrition:

We have concentrations of, prevalence of malnutrition, chronic malnutrition, in children as high as 90 percent in some municipalities. This is unbelievable. This is so dramatic that you can very easily get into the spirit that nothing can be done.

VO: More than 2 million Guatemalans live in extreme poverty, and officials warn that mounting economic pressures mean that many may not be able to feed themselves in the coming months.

VO: In some ways this is surprising: overall, Guatemala is not poor, and produces enough food. But most of the benefits only go to a privileged few.

VO: Guatemala is divided in two worlds, which rarely, if ever meet. On the one side are a small group of the very rich who own most of the land and control the economy. Their lives take place in sequestered neighborhoods, filled with shopping malls, fancy restaurants, and parties, all protected by the ubiquitous armed guards

VO: The other world is made up of large swathes of the very poor, more than half of population, most of whom are indigenous people working as subsistence farmers. They live in isolated villages without electricity, sewage, or clean water. Educational levels are among the worst in Latin America, and access to health care is negligible. Diarrhea and infections are rampant. Many of the poorest villages were at the center of the 30-year civil war, which only ended in 1996.

VO: Now, the mounting pressures from the global economic crisis and climate changes, health officials warn that hundreds of thousands of people may not be able to feed themselves

Dr. Evelin Nufio (Spanish):Yes, it is having an effect on the whole population on a general level. More so with people with low incomes because there are a lot of farms that do not have work anymore.

VO: Children are still getting food, but it is often just tortilla or pasta. Eggs and beans – which are high in protein – are a luxury, which may only come once or twice a week. Vitamin deficiency remains a constant problem, made worse by unsanitary conditions and dirty water.

VO: The result of chronic malnutrition is stunting - people do not grow as much as they should.

Claudia Nieves, nutrition expert with Save the Children USA: Children are stunted, which is they are shorter for their age than what the growth curves suggest they should be, and they are also low weight for height. So most of the children will probably be adults with no education and very low socioeconomic status.

VO: Long-term studies have recently shown that stunting adversely affects not only height, but brain development and future earning power.

Claudia: It is very difficult to make them understand that being short and being low weight is a health problem. Usually they believe it when kids start getting diarrhea, chronic diarrhea, and they are in and out of the health post everyday because of sickness, then they worry. But just on a normal day, they don’t really believe that it’s a problem.

VO: In the worst cases, like Sucely and Israel, the problems of hunger are painfully visible. But for most children suffering from chronic malnutrition, the symptoms are often hidden.

VO: Guatemala’s chronic malnutrition remains at a time when nearly every country in Latin America has significantly reduced the problem, even those that are much poorer.

While international donors, including the U.S., are providing emergency supplies, food alone is not enough to change the fundamental economic and socials problems at the root of Guatemala’s hidden malnutrition.

VO: Domitila was lucky, she had a foreign sponsor and so made it to the clinic. But her brothers and sisters do not. They are still waiting.