In April 2013, Northwest Pediatric Center providers, nurses and lay volunteers traveled to Guatemala as part of a Medical Teams International medical brigade serving in the highlands of the San Juan Chamelca region. There, we assisted in MTI’s ongoing public health programs by providing acute healthcare for over 400 patients ranging from newborns to 90 year olds.
According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, an estimated 58% of Guatemalans live in poverty. The majority of the poorest are indigenous people of Mayan descent living in rural areas. Infant and maternal mortality rates among these groups are alarmingly high. Chronic malnutrition in children under five ranks as the highest in the Western Hemisphere, higher even than Haiti. USAID’s Global Health Initiative says the rate is 59% for rural children and 66% for indigenous children. These high malnutrition rates have long term health, education and economic consequences for those who suffer from it.
MEDICAL TEAMS INTERNATIONAL’S WORK IN GUATEMALA
Less than half of Guatemala’s rural residents have access to running water, a quarter have electricity at home and less than 10 percent have modern sanitary facilities. Dental decay is also a serious problem for many Guatemalans because access to dental care is limited and in the rural areas it is nonexistent.
In July 2010, Medical Teams International established a community health and nutrition project in the San Juan Chamelco municipality in the department of Alta Verapaz.
The children and women in San Juan Chamelco are particularly susceptible to chronic illnesses. The three biggest killers of children are acute respiratory infection, malnutrition and diarrhea, all preventable diseases. Over half of the children in the municipality of San Juan Chamelco are malnourished, affecting their physical and mental potential for the rest of their lives. Women also struggle disproportionately from malnutrition and birth related deaths.
Medical Teams International is working to improve the health of San Juan Chamelco by focusing on prevention and community case management of malnutrition, acute respiratory infection and diarrhea while simultaneously improving maternal health. In coordination with community, church, and government health officials, MTI conducts monthly growth monitoring for children, offers food supplements for severely malnourished children, educates families on the identification and treatment of common childhood ailments, changes poor health behaviors through strategic health trainings, builds ventilated stoves, water-systems and sanitary latrines to create an environment for health, trains community midwives to better care for pregnant women and to attend safe births, and ensures essential vaccinations are provided.
STORIES FROM THE ROAD
One of the most memorable patients we encountered was Jorge, a 9 year old boy who fell out of a tree one year prior. Since that injury, he was left completely blind; as a result, he was shunned by his family and left to essentially fend for himself. Fortunately, a kindly neighbor woman took him in and tried to help him adjust to being newly blind. When he was brought to clinic, his facial expression was flat, emotionless, and almost depressed. There are no seeing eye dogs, white canes, Braille or other accommodations available for a blind child in the Mayan highlands. Thus, for the past year, he had been expected to function without sight in world made for sight. We decided to teach his neighbor friend how to help him experience the world using his other senses, such as having Jorge describe what he felt when we placed a playful kitten in hands. His face lit up in a huge smile as he felt the silky warmth of the kitten and then he proceeded to describe various objects we put in his hands. With help from his loving neighbor woman and continued emphasis on using his other senses, we hope Jorge will be able to adapt a little better to living without sight.