Severe Stunting: Twelve Years Old Going on Five


In the village of Cajagualten, Luke and his staff run monthly field clinics. They lure parents in by offering free clothes but the real purpose is intervention and education including medical checkups. Doctors are especially on the lookout for babies in distress.

At their November clinic, hundreds showed up, including Maria, a poor Mayan mother of five. Doctors discovered, much to Maria's surprise, that her youngest child , two-month-old Gricelda, was severely malnourished and needed immediate medical care.

With Maria's consent, doctors took the baby to Casa Jackson where she was treated, fed and cared for. In just two weeks, she made remarkable progress. And while the baby recuperates at Casa Jackson, Luke taught Maria better ways of feeding her daughter and better utilizing scarce resources so her child could continue to grow properly.

The American government is here, too, helping out through large humanitarian groups like Save the Children. In rural villages throughout the country they distribute rice, beans and fortified corn soy flour.

But the food is just a small part of what they do, according to Save the Children's Guatemala country director Carlos Cardenas. Their main emphasis is on teaching nutrition and showing poor families how to become more self-sufficient by growing their own gardens and raising chickens. And then there are the goats that provide badly needed milk for malnourished young children.

Mayan Children in America Taller Than Guatemalan Peers

Because almost everyone is stunted in rural Mayan communities, it would seem that Mayans are just genetically short.

But, according to medical anthropologists, this is not necessarily true. Diet plays a critical role.

We compared a group of native 9-year-old Mayans and a group of 9-year-old Mayans raised in the United States. The difference was dramatic. The American Mayan children who have access to better food are, on average, six inches taller than those raised in Guatemala. (See photos below.)

Wuqu' Kawoq, Casa Jackson and Save the Children are all helping to break the vicious cycle of poverty and malnutrition in Guatemala. Though the numbers still seem overwhelming, inroads are being made: Dr. Rohloff said in just 12 months, through nutritional intervention, he was able to cut malnutrition rates in half in the communities where he works.

"That is an extraordinarily exciting thing," he said. "That's an extraordinary accomplishment. To see, small children who now have the chance to live out their true, biological and social potential."

Nine-year-old children in Guatemala are significantly
shorter than the World Health Organization's global
average height for their age.

Mayan children raised in the United States are, on
average, six inches taller than their nine-year-old
peers in Guatemala.

CLICK HERE for more photos of ABC News' coverage of stunting and malnutrition in Guatemala.

The "Be the Change: Save a Life" initiative is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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