Parents and children queue to see a doctor at a health clinic in the Chiquimula region. Image by Samuel Loewenberg. Guatemala, 2009.
9-year-old Domitila at the Bethania rehabilitation centre in Chiquimula, Guatemala. Image by Samuel Loewenberg. Guatemala, 2009.

Although most of Guatemala's children have enough food to eat, many are not receiving the right kind of food. Samuel Loewenberg reports on the country's growing crisis of chronic malnutrition.

In the clean, toy-filled interior of a clinic in Chiquimula, a 9-year-old girl appears to be frowning. Her name is Domitila, and her muscles are too weak to form a smile (see webvideo). Her body is fragile: arms and legs wasted, patches of hair missing, the veins in her legs forming a black web-like pattern that shows through her delicate skin.

Domitila is one of about a dozen children in the Bethania rehabilitation clinic in the far-eastern town of Jocotan, near to the Honduran border. In an adjoining room, a 3-year-old boy, Israel, cannot even support his own weight. He has been placed in a walker, on which he is sprawled. He tries several times to raise himself, but cannot lift his head. A pair of 4-month-old babies, twins, lie in their cribs crying, both emaciated. Across the room, a nurse gently drops food into the mouth of an infant so small it barely looks human.

The cases of Israel, Domitila, and the other children here are the extreme edge of the hunger crisis in Guatemala, which has some of the worst rates of chronic malnutrition in the world. These children in the clinic are severely malnourished, many have kwashiorkor. Although these children are still the exception, chronic malnutrition can tip over to catastrophe, especially now, in the wake of the global food, climate, and financial crises. Unlike the more commonly known wasting in severe malnutrition, with chronic malnutrition, the problem is not a lack of food, but a lack of the right kind of food, with enough protein and micronutrients to keep children healthy.

The chronic malnutrition could at any moment turn acute with the current economic crisis", said Wayne Nilsestuen, who heads the US Agency for International Development's (USAID) office in Guatemala.

Half the children in Guatemala have chronic malnutrition. In some areas the rate is as high as 90%. This is startling, because in terms of gross domestic product, Guatemala is a fairly prosperous country. ...

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Project

Samuel Loewenberg ventures to Guatemala to survey the underlying issues of the Central American country's extreme poverty. There, income inequality equals the worst in Africa - particularly among indigenous communities. In some regions, an estimated 75 percent of the children from infants to the ages of 6 and 7 are chronically malnourished.

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