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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

hungry canaries

The children on the pediatric ward are like the proverbial canaries in the mine shaft, small and vulnerable, the first to show signs of impending disaster.  Over the last few weeks I've been noticing stories in our national paper, stories about famine.  Irregular weather patterns have diminished rain across northern and eastern swathes of the country, and thirsty land is failing to yield enough food.  It occurred to me today that our pediatric ward serves as an early warning of hunger.  in 2008 our average admissions for severe acute malnutrition were 13/month.  In early 2009, we were continuing to average about 10.  In July so far, we have admitted 26, with 23 still on the ward, and the month is far from over.  The summer months are the hungriest time of the year, pre-harvest.  And our ward continues to reach out further and further as desperate people come hoping for help.  Training community health volunteers means we now have active case-finding in many villages; we are not just waiting for the children to come to us.  All of that could be boosting our admission rates, but I think there is also a larger trend towards hunger in the community.  Rising global food prices, shortages of rains, over-commitment of land to cocoa rather than food, population pressure all begin to squeeze the neediest families.  So the children who have chronic illness, whose mothers have died, who live on the margins, begin to show the signs of hunger first.  

When I counted the admissions today, at least it made sense, no wonder the workload feels so intense, the sorrow there so palpable.  Pray for rescue for these little canaries, and bigger rescue for the continent where AIDS and drought and entrenched poverty and swelling families all push the weakest right over the edge.

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