Story Publication logo June 24, 2009

Honduras: Not So Sweet


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Nestled in a remote northern Honduras valley, Santa Lucia and the surrounding area are home to 20...

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A local mother gives her child a sugary soft drink while waiting for researchers to assess her child's nutritional and cognitive levels. Image by Tracy Boyer. Honduras, 2009.

Santa Lucia is hidden deep in the mountain range of southwestern Honduras. I traveled for eight hours by car from the San Pedro Sula airport to Santa Lucia, a tiny community in the remote region of Intibuca. The gravel road hugged the mountainous terrain as we weaved up, around, and down. Pot holes and washed-out areas from torrential rains created a nearly impassable road. The recent 7.2 earthquake that struck Honduras crumbled many of the bridges, leaving only holes in its wake.

I soon realized that the lack of infrastructure disconnects these residents from simple necessities in life, including modern healthcare and nutritional needs. The residents rely primarily on the land for a substantive living, complemented with sugary soft drinks and packaged sweets trucked in from San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa. Due to lack of education, mothers give their children these products, sometimes even putting soft drinks in the baby's bottle.

A tradition in the area that is of growing concern is the practice of giving young children coffee. Families enjoy coffee together on a daily basis, and include their children in this tradition. However, children's organs are not sufficiently developed for these acidity levels, and infants do not have an adequate immune defense to handle the water used in making coffee. As a result, there is a high prevalence of diarrhea in young infants throughout the region.

A group of researchers working with the non-profit "Shoulder to Shoulder" are assessing malnutrition in the area by providing plumpy doz, a peanut butter paste, to local children as a food supplement. Funded by the Mathile Institute, the six-month project reaches out to more than 300 mothers and their young infants in local communities in an effort to prevent malnutrition. Researchers are calculating each child's height, weight, and age and comparing this data to a pre-determined mean, also known as a z-score. They then track changes in the z-score of each child throughout the six months to assess the benefit of plumpy doz.

Peggy Bentley, Associate Dean for Global Health at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, serves as one of the nutrition investigators for the project. Bentley is here for a week overseeing the project and inspecting the data sets. "Stunting is chronic malnutrition and that's what the profile is all throughout Latin and South America," Bentley said. "In this part of the world in Honduras we see rates of stunting that are 50-60% of the population and sometimes even more than that."**

Dr. Jeffery Heck, founder and executive director of "Shoulder to Shoulder," noted that Honduras is the third poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with a malnutrition rate of 17%. "However, poverty and malnutrition rates are thought to be as high as twice the national average in the rural remote areas of western Honduras," Heck wrote.

**Updated 6/29/09



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