How to Feed Haiti

Chronic malnutrition affects 24 percent of children under 5 in Haiti, and that number can reach as high as 40 percent in the poorest areas, according to the United Nations World Food Program (WFP).

With 1.9 million citizens unable to stave off hunger even before the quake, the U.N. estimates that 3 million people may need humanitarian relief, including food assistance in the wake of the earthquake.

"If you ate once a day, you were considered rich -- every meal was a miracle," Trost says. "That's how it was going into the earthquake, you add this on top -- it's catastrophic."

A number of programs like the What If? Foundation have sprung up to meet the great need for food and medical aid in Haiti.

Another such program, International Child Care (ICC), has opened clinics and Grace's Children's Hospital in Port-au-Prince and works with Haitian manufacturers to produce Medika Mamba, a product made from Haitian peanuts and nutrient supplements that is given to children diagnosed with malnutrition.

Dr. Jeannine Hatt, pediatrician and chair of the medical resources committee for the ICC, has seen patients in Port-au-Prince, and notes that the "majority of children coming through the clinics have some degree of malnutrition [and] with the situation as it is now, with the wide food shortages," she says, "this will be obviously accentuated."

"Because life in Haiti is dependent on hand to mouth survival," Hatt notes. "Mothers must return to work soon after giving birth and children [are] weaned off breast-feeding too quickly and given porridge that is high in carbohydrates and low in protein. This causes them to become malnourished from an early age," Hatt says.

This malnourishment is further complicated by poor access to potable water, which makes it more likely that children will pick up intestinal parasites and diarrheal diseases that further prevent the proper absorption of nutrients.

"Diarrhea is the second most common cause of death in Haiti," Hatt explains. And because malnourished children have weakened immune systems, pneumonia and intestinal tract infections often progress rapidly and are a major killer of children.

What the Future Holds for Haiti

But unlike AIDS, another major concern for doctors working with ICC, malnutrition is relatively simple to treat in the short term, Hatt says.

"After the introduction of Medika Mamba, we see improvement within days," says Keith Mumma, U.S.A. national director of ICC. After "a few days of good food and treatment, a child once thin [and] very lifeless is up playing with other children."

Since Hatt began working in Haiti with ICC nearly a decade ago, she says she has seen "the government in Haiti stabilize in recent years" and adds that "the pendulum could have been swinging toward improvement in overall health, [but] this horrible tragedy is going to put things way back."

"It's vital for food aid to come in," she says, noting that the long-term effects of chronic malnutrition can include developmental delays and permanent stunting in growth.

"If the amount of aid and interest can continue for years to come, I believe there is hope for Haiti to make a recovery -- the Haitian people are unbelievably strong, creative and resilient."

For more information or to donate to the What If? Foundation, check out their Web site.

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