In Haiti, food insecurity—that is, feeling uncertain that on any given day, you and your family will have enough food to eat just to survive—is a fact of life. Food insecurity in the Artibonite Valley, where Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti (HAS) is located, peaks in the summer months, when most of the harvest from the year before is gone, but new crops have not yet come in. Everyone in the community can be affected, especially during a year after storms or other natural disasters led to a poor harvest the previous year.
Infants and children, whose developing brains and bodies desperately need enough calories, protein, and nutrients to grow properly, are extremely vulnerable to seasonal malnutrition. Despite years of community nutrition education and interventions by HAS staff, Chronic malnutrition remains high in our service region. Overall, 24% of the children in the Lower Artibonite Valley have stunted growth, while 16% of all children are underweight.
Because of our donors’ generosity and the support of organizations like UNICEF, World Vision, Vitamin Angels, and the Haitian Ministry of Health, HAS’s network of community health workers are able to screen young children at more than 260 health posts each month—enabling earlier identification of children at risk for malnutrition. At community health posts, HAS community health workers weigh and measure the mid-upper arm circumference of more than 7,000 children each month. If a community health worker identifies a child suffering from severe malnutrition and medical complications, admission to the main hospital becomes necessary. A child will stay in the hospital until he or she is stable enough to be transferred to a community-based program closer to home. All along the way, parents receive education and support that will help them keep their children healthy.
This summer, HAS is noticing a sudden increase in rates of acute malnutrition in babies and children. Frantzy, the little boy I am holding in the photo, has a typical story. He has probably suffered from chronic malnutrition for most of his life, but recent illness led to the severe malnutrition that brought him to the hospital. We at HAS are not entirely sure what is causing this spike, but we are very concerned about the health and well-being of the children currently being admitted to the hospital for care.
Our community health workers started seeing notable increases in moderate malnutrition back in May. From January to April, community health workers saw about 23 children a month with indicators of moderate malnutrition; in May, the number had shot up to 59. We have gone on to see many cases of life-threatening, severe malnutrition in June and July. Many children with severe malnutrition, like Frantzy, are also chronically malnourished, making sudden weight and nutrient loss even more dangerous. Frantzy’s organ functioning and immune system are already compromised, so he—and countless children like him—become very vulnerable to life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia, infections, and even heart failure.
This month, instead of seeing admissions for acute malnutrition begin going down, we are actually seeing alarming increases. Last week alone, 18 children were admitted to HAS for acute malnutrition. (An average week in the spring and summer might see 4-6 admissions.) Our malnutrition ward is full to overflowing.
HAS remains fully committed not only to treating malnutrition, but to preventing it from happening at all. I am privileged to be able to work firsthand with so many dedicated clinicians and community health workers, who are literally saving the lives of children every day. We could not do this work without the strong support of our donors and partners. However, as you can see, there is still so much work to be done. Please consider supporting HAS’s life-saving work to prevent and treat malnutrition in infants and children!