Haiti: Economic Crisis Impacts Children’s Health

Gerda Figaro (right) sits nursing her malnourished son Suffrani.

(Copyright: WFP/David Orr)

An increase in child malnutrition cases at a hospital in Cite Soleil hospital highlights the effects the economic crisis is having among Haiti’s poor, especially those who depend on money sent by relatives working overseas.

CITE SOLEIL -- On the second floor of St. Catherine Laboure medical center, boys and girls show the full spectrum of malnutrition symptoms, from swelling so severe their eyes are clamped shut to emaciation that exposes ribs and leaves infant skin loose and crinkled. Sitting by a row of cribs, Gerda Figaro cradles her pot-bellied eight-month-old son, Suffrani, in her thin arms and stares blankly ahead.

“He got sick because he went two days without eating,” she says. “I had trouble feeding him because no one was giving me anything.”

Support dried up

Suffrani is one of 19 children being treated for severe malnutrition at St. Catherine, a hospital run by Haiti’s state department of health and the NGO Medecins du Monde Canada.

Like many single mothers here, 23-year-old Figaro has long depended on the generosity of others, and recently her sources of support have dried up, one after another. She was helped until recently by an uncle in Port-au-Prince, who, in turn, was receiving money transfers from family in the United States. But Figaro has received nothing from him in four months. “He said the help from overseas stopped coming. He didn’t say why.”

Parents here and across Cite Soleil, a city of some 200,000 people, say feeding their children has become more difficult in recent months – accounts that seem to contradict macro-economic trends. With a decline in inflation overseas, prices of basic imported goods like rice have dropped since the spike that triggered riots one year ago. But some goods, especially domestic products, remain expensive, and buying power for many has declined.

"Every child malnourished"

As a result, some at St. Catherine predict the number of children needing medical care for acute malnutrition will continue to rise. Likewise, moderate malnutrition is apparent in many kids that are admitted for other reasons.

“Almost every child who comes in for whatever reason is malnourished,” says pediatric nurse Francia Louverture. “Two or three years ago, that was not the case.”

Louverture attributes the more recent increase in malnourished patients to the global economic crisis, saying any decline in remittances from developed countries has a dramatic effect on Haiti’s poor. 

“Even for those who don’t have family overseas, remittances benefit them indirectly,” Louverture says, explaining that that there is a ‘filter down’ effect which means money from abroad eventually helps many people to buy food.