Guatemala: Food Shortages Compound Malnutrition Problems

A young boy being treated for malnutrition at the Jocotan clinic.

(Copyright: WFP/Martin Penner)

Guatemala has been hit by severe food shortages recently, worsening what were already dangerous levels of malnutrition. Fresh from a visit to the worst affected areas in the east of the country, WFP field monitor Lida Escobar describes what she saw.

GUATEMALA CITY -- In the eastern city of Jalapa, there were many, many children with severe malnutrition problems. We found 22 children with marasmus and kwashiorkor [two nutrient deficiency diseases] in the hospital.

Kwashiorkor is a type of malnutrition in which the children swell because they retain liquids because of protein deficiency. Their hair can also become discoloured and they develop some skin lesions. Marasmus is another form of malnutrition in which the skin barely covers the bones because of a protein and calories deficiency. The children become very thin, lose hair and can become very irritable.

In Jalapa, the children are not only suffering from malnutrition but they also have to fight other diseases like bronchial pneumonia, gastrointestinal problems and diarrhoea.

Body defences low

They lose their appetites and their bodies don't absorb the nutrients when they eat. As their body defences are low, they get sick very easily.

I also went to Chiquimula, in the town of Jocotan. I visited two nutritional treatment centres which have been treating children from the indigenous area known as Chorti. We found eight children recuperating there, most of them with Marasmus and Kwashiorkor. 

The crisis has very complex causes. Some children have developed these conditions because of the lack of food, but some because they have related diseases and are weak. The mothers say the children have fever and nausea and that, since they are not hungry, they don't give them anything to eat.

Don't seek help

The Chorti community has access to medical services through NGOs contracted to the ministry of health. To reach them, you have to walk for two hours through a mountainous area. In some cases there is help available, but there are problems with education.

We found one girl that was very cold and about to die. We asked the mother why she hadn't taken her to the centre and she replied that they only take their children to the centre when the local shaman cannot do anything else to help.

In the most vulnerable areas, the WFP helps with food for assets programmes. We also provide young children, lactating mothers and pregnant women with Vitacereal, which is a mixture of corn with fortified soy, micronutrients and fortified biscuits.

It's very sad to see the children with marasmus and kwashiorkor. They just stare into space and it makes you wonder what they are looking at. What is their future? What are they thinking about?

Portrait of Hunger: Francisca Casiano