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Fortifying Haitian Kids against Malnutrition
Text by Molly Marsh / Audio Slideshow by Laura Elizabeth Pohl
DEBRIGA, HAITI — We’re in the Haitian village of Debriga, standing inside a small building that serves as the community’s church, school, and gathering center. The walls consist of dried palm tree leaves held together by wooden beams. The temperature and a tin roof keep the room hot and airless, and small children run across the dirt floor—some in pink or orange Crocs, others in their bare feet.
Audio Slideshow / In the village of Debriga, a new Fonkoze health program diagnoses and treats child malnutrition.
About 100 women and children are sitting on rows of long wooden benches listening to Nicole Cesar Muller, Fonkoze’s director of health, talk about the importance of vitamins and nutrition. Several children have a reddish tint to their hair—a sign of malnutrition—as well as swollen bellies, an indication they have worms.
This gathering is part of a new health program Fonkoze started in the last year. Bank managers noticed that many of their clients’ children were malnourished, so the organization decided to partner with medical groups—such as Partners in Health (Zanmi Lasante in Creole)—to diagnose and treat it. Fonkoze center chiefs, as they’re called, are trained to test kids for malnutrition and connect mothers and children with treatment.
At this gathering, Muller will distribute six months' worth of vitamin A, multivitamins, and de-worming pills to the mothers.
She tells them why vitamins are important. “Put [them] on top of what you’re eating, because we know you’re not getting enough nutrients in your food,” she says. The multivitamins taste good, so Muller reminds them that their kids should only get one a day. And, she says, “It’s a very expensive vitamin, so we don’t want you to do business with it. It goes to your kids.”
Muller then puts on plastic gloves, picks up the vitamin A bottle, and moves through the crowd. The children look up at her from the safety of their mothers’ laps—some protest in anticipation; others are quietly scared. Most are mesmerized by this warm, efficient woman with the yellow headscarf. She cuts off the tip of each capsule and pours the powder on each child’s tongue. There’s no water to wash it down, and the looks on their faces indicate how bad it tastes.
Six months ago, a 5-year-old girl named Ismylove Volma was so severely malnourished that she had no hair and couldn’t walk. She was sent to Zanmi Lasante for treatment. Now she wears white ribbons in her hair, and though she’s still very small for her age, she’s walking.
Twenty-two-year-old Louis Wisline, who lives just behind the building, brought her daughter, Francesca, to the vitamin distribution because she wants her 2-year-old to be healthy. Wisline isn’t a member of Fonkoze, but that’s not a requirement for coming—the vitamins are for any mothers in the community who want them. Malnutrition is common in Haiti, especially in rural areas like Debriga.
Since the program began, 824 children have been diagnosed with malnutrition and received treatment.
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