PALAJUNOJ VALLEY, Guatemala—It was a good day at the Primeros Pasos clinic when a kindergarten class from the Tierra Colorada Baja school came for their annual checkup and health lesson. Sixteen of the children, mainly five and six years old, brought stool samples to be tested.
“A big success! Only 14 have parasites,” declared Irma Yolanda Mezariegos, the clinic’s lab technician, after a morning of testing. “On most days, it would be 15 out of 16, or 16 of 16.”
That “only” 14 rates as a success indicates the toxic mixture of poor nutrition and poor sanitation that leads to widespread stunting of Guatemalan children. Nearly 50 percent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition. More than one-quarter of the rural population doesn’t have access to clean sanitation facilities.
The endemic presence of parasites, beginning in a child’s first months, can trigger malnutrition by absorbing nutrients meant for the human body. Malnutrition isn’t only due to a lack of nutritious food; it can be exacerbated by worms, bacteria, aflatoxins and pathogens found in the food, water and soil. The impact of poor sanitation in the 1,000 Days, from a mother’s pregnancy to the child’s second birthday, can last a lifetime.
“People here live and die with parasites,” explained Irma. “It’s one of the reasons that Guatemala has such a malnutrition problem, and stunting. The children just stay short and small.”
Read the rest of the article and view Pulitzer Center grantee Roger Thurow’s project: 1,000 Days: To Save Women, Children and the World