The Heat Is Online

Thousands of Guatemalan Children At Risk of Starvation

Malnutrition emergency hits Guatemalan children Feb. 18, 2002

GUATEMALA CITY - Guatemala is in the grips of a child-malnutrition emergency, with thousands of children under age 5 facing death in the coming months after a drought that devastated subsistence crops, a senior regional U.N. official said last week.

The U.N. World Food Program has delivered several thousand tonnes of food aid to Guatemala and its Central American neighbors, Deborah Hines, WFP senior regional program advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean, told Reuters by telephone from Nicaragua.

Hines added that WFP officials are making a plea for donor nations to provide food items including sugar, maize and vegetable oils "as soon as possible," and plan urgent measures over the coming months to try to limit the death toll.

"We feel the situation in Guatemala has reached emergency levels," Hines said.

Hines said 73,000 Guatemalan children are suffering from life-threatening acute malnutrition, and about 5,000 are at risk of dying in coming months. She said at least 126 children already have died of malnutrition in Guatemala since the crisis began last year.

Acute malnutrition is diagnosed in cases of severe deviation from normal height-to-weight ratios.

Last year's devastating drought in Central America laid waste to subsistence crops in parts of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, leaving small farmers starving in a crisis compounded by historically low prices for coffee - a regional economic mainstay.

Guatemala has been the hardest hit of the four, triggering the huge increase in acute malnutrition among children under age 5 and prompting the emergency measures prepared by the World Food Program.

More than 45 percent of all Guatemalans now suffer chronic malnutrition, the result of years of hunger often inherited from malnourished parents - the highest percentage in all of Latin America, according to Hines.


The WFP so far has distributed several thousand tonnes of food aid in the four affected countries and hopes to continue its longer-term relief and recovery program aimed at shielding the region from the effects of future disasters.

The new emergency plan will include 10-day therapeutic feeding programs for children whose condition renders them no longer able to digest normal food safely, said Hines. She said emergency rations also would be supplied to those children's families.

Guatemala at first was thought to have been only marginally affected by the crisis. But harrowing pictures appearing in the press showing emaciated babies at a clinic on the country's eastern border with Honduras indicated otherwise.

The true gravity of the situation became clear this month in nationwide research by Guatemala's government and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

In 1995, 2.5 percent of all Guatemala's children suffered from acute malnutrition. That figure is now as high as 30 percent in some areas, said Oscar Liendo, a UNICEF official in Guatemala who worked on the research.

Officials say Guatemala may have been hardest hit because of greater dependence on coffee in drought-affected areas than in neighboring countries.

Dirt-poor subsistence farmers who normally can replenish supplies when crops fail by working the harvest on a coffee farm now have nowhere to turn because price-hammered plantation owners have cut back on pickers in order to stay afloat.

"The rural population has hardly any reserves left," said Liendo.

Story by Greg Brosnan