Haitian Children Severely Malnourished

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by
The Miami Herald

Haitian Children Severely Malnourished

International aid workers in Haiti worry about the number of children who are severely malnourished, and a delegate for one region said they have `a famine situation.'

by
Jacqueline Charles

Venecia Lonis, 4, who suffers from malnutrition, is held before being weighed at the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Port-au-Prince, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008. Aid workers fear hunger is worsening in rural Haiti after at least 26 children died of conditions exacerbated by a lack of nutrition, raising concerns that a grave food crisis may be brewing following four devastating tropical storms. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

PORT-AU-PRINCE - With arms and legs so skinny they look like twigs, 2-year-old Davidson
Pierre has to struggle just to sit. So he remains sprawled on his back
and stares listlessly at the ceiling. He doesn't smile. He doesn't cry.

For eight days now, the boy has been on a high caloric diet of enriched milk and doctors say his fragile body is responding.

Davidson,
like the others at the makeshift Martissant children's malnutrition
clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, shows all of the telltale signs
of extreme malnourishment -- stunted growth, brittle orange hair,
skinny arms and legs and bloated bellies.

''When we found them,
they were nearly ready to die,'' Max Cosci, the head of a Belgian
contingent of Doctors Without Borders, said surveying the room of
acutely malnourished children and their worried mothers. ``Now they are
doing much better.''

With UNICEF estimating that 300,000 children
were affected by the string of storms that battered Haiti this summer,
destroying crops and livestock at a time of already high food prices,
international relief workers are worried that already vulnerable
Haitian children are even more at risk of dying.

The concerns
come as aid workers finally gain access to sparsely populated hilly
villages in regions like Baie d'Orange in southeast Haiti, where 26
children died in the last month, reportedly due to severe malnutrition.

Fednel
Zidor, government delegate for the southeast region of Haiti, said
Saturday that 46 children were hospitalized in recent weeks for severe
cases of malnutrition from the Baie d'Orange area. Others are being
treated at home.

''Forty-five to 50 percent of the population in
the Baie d'Orange region is being affected,'' he said. ``We can say we
have a famine situation in that region.''

Nobody knows if the problem is more widespread than that.

SCALE OF PROBLEM

Doctors
Without Borders, an independent humanitarian group based in France, is
in the middle of an assessment of Haiti's southeast region that started
three weeks ago, and UNICEF only recently completed a survey of the
Northwest region.

''We still don't have a proper picture of
what's going on,'' said Isabelle Mouniaman Nara, who heads a Doctors
Without Borders mission in Port-au-Prince. ``Some of the
nongovernmental organizations did rough assessments . . . and came up
with high numbers.''

The first Doctors Without Borders team
arrived in Baie d'Orange about three weeks ago. Initially, doctors
struggled to find patients in the mountainous region, accessible only
by donkey or on foot, and more than two hours outside of the town of
Jacmel.

Now they are being flooded with them, Cosci says, after
airlifting 20 children and their mothers to hospitals in the capital
for emergency treatment.

Shortly after arriving at the Martissant
clinic, two children died, said Dr. James Pallett who has been treating
the kids. Pallett said all of the children being treated share a common
trait: they are malnourished -- not because of starvation, but from not
eating enough protein.

Haiti's poor rely heavily on starchy foods like rice and plantains because protein-rich foods like meat are too expensive.

Cosci
says that while doctors are still searching for answers, he believes
one of the problems is the way in which villagers cultivate the land.
''They are just cutting the trees [and] planting on the mountain, and
it is not good for the soil,'' Cosci said.

''In some villages you
have carrots the size of my finger and [six miles] further, you have
carrots that are like in the markets in Europe,'' he said. ``They are
planting, but [the soil] is not good for them to cultivate there.''

STORMS' LEGACY

But
while that could be a contributing factor, parents say the summer
storms definitely added to their misery by destroying crops and the few
farm animals families depended on for a living. High food prices
already had sparked deadly riots in April.

''It didn't leave us
with anything,'' said Jeannette Tatta, a mother of seven who brought
her 2-year-old baby Jean-Edy to receive help. ``I had a farm. It
destroyed everything. I had animals. It washed them away. It carried
everything and left us here to suffer with children dying in our arms.''

The
food shortages caused by the storms, she added, also spiked food prices
and left mothers like herself unable to afford even a plate of beans
and rice.

Tatta's worried face and the emaciated look of her child are stark evidence of the depth of the crisis.

In
recent days, the more fortunate victims have ended up in hospitals and
are receiving round-the-clock care. Others, like 8-year-old Berlinda,
are left to suffer without medical care in makeshift orphanages.

ORPHANS' MISERY

On
a recent Sunday in the town of Cabaret, as the hungry cries of 124
other orphans echoed through a nightclub with no windows, no doors and
only a leaky thatched roof, she reclined on one of only three beds
inside the vast space. Too weak to lift her body, she complained of an
aching throat, but the sores covering her face and emaciated frame drew
attention.

With no access to potable water, she and the others
have been drinking the polluted water from a nearby river where weeks
earlier dead victims of Hurricane Ike floated. Instead of a balanced
meal, breakfast consisted of bread and dinner was rice with beans. No
meat.

''They are malnourished,'' said Lucienne Phillipe, 42, director of the orphanage.

Myrta
Kaulard, country director for the U.N. Nations World Food Program, said
the food aid organization is really concerned about the crisis that may
be brewing, especially in hard-to-reach pockets of the country. Last
weekend, she visited Cazale, another mountain village just north of
Port-au-Prince where 20 severely malnourished children were being
treated by an aid group.

Kaulard said even though international
relief workers ''were all anticipating this,'' and doing their best to
get food and water to the people, it is difficult to reach many of the
most isolated areas, even by helicopter.

''The logistic,
transportation challenge is a major bottleneck,'' she said. ``We are
right back to the situation we had with Gonaives right after the
hurricane when all of the bridges leading into the city were cut off.''

World
Food Program, along with the U.S. Agency for International Development
and other relief groups, have responded by working to increase food
programs. Also, a USAID-funded food distribution was expanded and
UNICEF is funding a nationwide nutrition survey starting next month.

MOST INFANT DEATHS

Even
before a string of storms wiped out crops, killed livestock and cut
access to remote mountain villages, children in Haiti were endangered.
The country has the highest infant mortality rate in the Western
Hemisphere for children under 5. Haitian authorities have long reported
that 9 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition, and 23
percent suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Kaulard said she's also
become increasingly concerned because many farmers have reported that
they were unable to plant in September due to a lack of seeds. That and
the lack of foreign donor support for the U.N.'s emergency appeal on
behalf of Haiti has her doubly apprehensive.

''The first half of
2009 really looks worrisome for Haiti,'' Kaulard said. ``We are very
concerned. The World Food Program has food resources to cover the needs
of two million people and we have enough until January. If we don't get
more resources, February will be very tough and the following months
even tougher.''

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