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Children Who Live with Hunger

In Villa Quinteros, the number of malnutritioned children has increased by 637% in six months.

(translation of article by Christian Alarcon, published in Pagina 12 , May 21, 2001)

The Biafra-like body of Dalia Rocio Manrique, a girl who in March was one year and five months old and weighed only 5600 grams, is a portrait of the indignity that poverty has reached in Argentina. In the last five months malnutrition has ravaged the children of the region of Tucuman, where President Dualde recently reopened the Alpargatas factory. The calamity has reached alarming numbers among the people of Villa Quinteros, where according to the ultimate register of the local Center For Primary Attention, the number of malnourished children between the ages of two and six has,since December, gone from 32 to 204: an increase of 637%. The photo of Dalia, renourished after intensive care in the regional hospital is being used to increase awareness of the religious and non-profit communities of Buenos Aires by the Popular Assembly of Villa Quinteros, who doesn't believe in the government's capacity to halt the tragedy.

In Quinteros there is not a single social welfare program currently functioning. In the local school, Tambor de Tacuari, the children don't even get a cup of tea. In the food dispensary, the nurse Estela Ledesma tries vainly to distribute what little there is: "If four hundred boxes of food arrive, we usually need twice as many, so we weigh the children and even though it hurts we have to deny those who are a little better off, to give to others.

The photo of Dalia Ricio is pasted on the walls of churches around Buenos Aires and its environs, along with a request for food and clothes. The impetus for the campaign came from professor Nestor Santillan, one of the members of the Popular Assembly, who believed that if he didn't do something, the government of Tucuman would never improve the condition of people who go hungry. Santillan put Pagina 12 in contact with Carlos Quira, the man who lights and dims the streetlights in Villa Quinteros, who took this reporter to the houses where the mothers of these malnourished children lived. Pagina 12 then located Estela Ledesma and Doctor Mario Martinez, who are in charge of the Center for Primary Attention. They were the ones who confirmed the Assemblies report: although not all of the cases are as bad as Dalia's, the progressive and accelerated rise in malnutrition demonstrates a pauperization that has managed to transform the hunger and deterioration of its children into a daily occurence in Quinteros.

"I don't want to cry, I don't want to feel bad, but I can't find any relief from this," said one mother to Pagina 12 as she told the story of how she fought poverty and malnutrition. "You can see it in the children's eyes, they start to get bigger. And in their skin, that get's harder, almost yellow. And you see it in their bloated stomach, you see that a lot."

Maria Angela Robles, by herself, is trying to raise four girls. The youngest ones are "the twins" who have been malnourished since they were born,and always have lower defenses." The last help they got was the Work Plan of 115 pesos that they received twice. Maria says the third payment that was promised never arrived, and that every day she and her daughters wake up praying that the third payment will arrive. But it never does.

Maria says that the twins were advised to take a "remedy" to alleviate their malnutriction, as well as a special diet. She has never been able to get ahold of either one. She has not been able to find work. And the efforts to get milk that they give in the food dispensary is "an oddyssey". The food line at the dispensary starts at four in the morning. Sometimes a rumor runs through the crowd: "They say that the milk has arrived," and they sit all sit down. And when no one will confirm it, the mothers all stand up again to wait for the kilo of powdered milk that is delivered in the morning after the children are weighed.

This moment is one of the most difficult for the people who work at CAP. "When the milk gets here, it's total craziness because they send less than what they are supposed to," says Estela Ledesma, the woman with swollen legs who has been working since she was sixteen in the dispensary and carefully examines the people every morning, trying to control the most dramatic cases.

"It's a juggling act," she says. "We give them a kilo of powdered milk every two or three months. Depending on how much they send. Now they are not sending anything, nothing has arrived since February. It's hard because you have to weigh them and depending on how they are, they either get something or they don't. If they are more or less okay, you have to give them nothing, even though they need it, because there is somebody else who needs it more."

Dona Estela, 52, knows that many times the assistance "doesn't go where it's supposed to go." She knows political "representatives"
(punteros) that don't distribute everything they receive. The Popular Assembly has made a formal compalint to the President's wife, Chiche Dualde, about different kinds of schemes like this. But these schemes are not the reason for the explosion of malnutricion in Villa Quinteros. Mario Martinez, an employee of the Regional System of Health (Siprosa), since 1987 when he arrived from Buenos Aires to this remote corner of the interior says that at that time there were still farms, hens, chickens, and pigs in the yards and in the outskirts of Quinteros. But poverty continued to increase and the only jobs that remained were in the commune or in the harvest of sugar cane or lemons. "But all this and the social plans have begun to diminish, so the poverty rate has risen, .", says Martinez.

The Path of Hunger

The doctor is one of those who have been able to perceive the effects of growing poverty, especially in food because of the rise in malnutritioin in the past five months. "There were 32 malnourished children in December, which grew at a rate of 40 kids per month. These are the kids we see in consultation There are not yet cases of Stage Three malnutrition (like Rocio). But this shows how the situation is progressing. If there is not a nutritional campaign or some serious help the kids we see will grow into Stage Two malnutritiion, which generates irreversable damanges." Martinez admits that since February there has been no milk and besides the lateness "the government makes its purchases and distributions in accordance with the earlier month, and so everything is calculated a month late. To top it off, because of the generalized lack of resources that hit the country in December, food assistance has diminished. December was the last month in which 800 boxes of milk arrived. Since then, only 400 boxes arrive, late, when every month more than 900 children come through his consulting room, most of them malnourished.

Martinez was asked what he felt when he had to deny food to some of the children.

"I would like this box of milk to be multiplied by ten, and I would like there to be work, and I would like so many things. One of the things I'd like is for them to have a normal childhood, for them to have a future, because when a child doesn't eat and is malnutritioned, he or she will never be able to regain all of his or her capacities.

In the mantime the health workers are trying, even though they know it's impossible with what they have, to maintain the children at Stage One malnutrition and to keep them from entering into Stage Two . The beginning signs are weakness and overall decay in the child, "lack of volumn in his or her constitution", weight loss, stunting of growth. Olguita Quineros is the subdirector of the Tambor de Tacuari School, where they study around 800 children. "Poverty is inmobilizing. It immobolizes the entire family. The children are not stimulated, they are kids who need special attention, kids who haven't had any possibilities, they suffer from lung and bronchial problems. Sometimes they don't show up because they don't have any shoes. And you see a lot of learning problems," says the teacher.

Along with Dalia Rocio, five other children arrived the same week at the Regional Hospital of Concepcioin with Stage Three malnutrition, the most severe,which generates irreversible damage and can lead to death because of the complete lowering of resistance. "If a child younger than two years old suffers this kind of malnutricion, it will have permanent damage, esp[ecially in its intellectual capacity. To survive it has basically had to consume its own muscles. Since fat is abundant in the brain, this is what its metabolism will attack first." Dalia was living at the limit of physical resistance.

Lopez, accustomed to seeing malnutritioned children, sometimes feels overwhelmed by having to take care of children arriving from outside the hospital's area. "We noticed that in March they started to show up in a horrendous state, third degree malnutrition, something that was not common," he said.

Dalia Rocio had already been to other hospitals, but they hadn't been able to make her well. She arrived with her pregnant mother, her unemployed and alcoholic father and brothers and sisters that were also malnourished. "The malnourished child is malnourished in many ways, not just of food, but of affection, of care, of culture, someone who has been rejected by society. This is why we all share the responsibility," he says. Ten days ago he treated a ten year old girl with Stage Two malnutrition, with a thirty percent nutritional deficiency. Brought up by some aunts, there was nobody to take care of her until her body began to show symptoms of extreme hunger."

Lopez can, without doubt, define malnutrition:

"An absence of connections, of opportunities, of assistence, of nutrients. Malnutrition can be considered a symptom of absence."

(translation: Lisa Garrigues)

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