Writer: Kathleen Davis Phillips, (979) 845-2872, firstname.lastname@example.org
Contact: Dr. George Bates, 979-845-6831
COLLEGE STATION — Biochemist George Bates begins his talk about malnourished Mexican children in an academic way; slides showing stunted growth, protruding shoulder blades, dry eyes, rotten teeth and scaley skin.
But somewhere in the carousel of images, scientist turns sentimentalist. “I’m not in this because I’m a toughy,” admits Bates, a professor at Texas A&M, viewing the picture of a little girl whose decayed teeth have broken off at the gums.
Bates and Dr. Adolfo Chavez, considered Mexico’s father of nutrition, have joined in an effort to assist some of Mexico’s most malnourished and ailing people — the indigenous Otomi and Mayan Indian children. This summer, Bates will take 20 Texas A&M students with Chavez and students from Mexico’s Universidad Autonoma Queretaro to La Pini, one of the most remote Mexican villages, to collect baseline information on 300 children before a pre-school feeding program begins. It is the second such trip under a memorandom of agreement between the two universities.
Their work is part of a massive effort by Mexico — begun after the United Nation’s 1990 World Summit for Children — to assess the extent of malnutrition and find ways to remedy the problems.
In an unprecedented 1993 survey of some 2.5 million Mexican first graders, almost 20 percent were found to have stunted heights — a common symptom of malnutrition — and in the southern states of Mexico, almost half of the first graders had stunted growth.
For Bates, the bridge between years of laboratory nutrition experiments and the practical application of knowledge was crossed when he began going to Mexico some 20 years ago to give academic lectures but found himself captivated by the faces of suffering children.
“You can study 10 kids who get enough protein and 10 who don’t and see that those with protein get taller,” Bates said. “But you feel like such studies make guinea pigs of the children.”
That convinced him that action was needed to confront the PPE Spiral — poverty, population and environmental destruction — which stems from widespread human hunger in many developing nations.
“The effects of malnutrition last a lifetime,” Bates said. “A child goes through a critical period of growth. Iron, for example, is critical in the early stages for brain development. If a child doesn’t have enough, he can suffer mental retardation that can never be overcome by iron therapy in later years.”
Bates and Chavez, with the students in last year’s clinical assessment of the Otomi children, found 84 percent exhibited mild to severe malnutrition. That was evidenced through skin problems (80 percent), eye problems (70 percent) and teeth and gum disease (65 percent). All are conditions that adequate protein, food energy and vitamin A could prevent.
That’s what Bates hopes to instill in the people through education and communication — the ability to prevent disease and suffering through adequate nutrition.
The team will measure and examine the children and conduct educational programs on nutrition at La Pini. A feeding supplementation program will be in that village throughout the year, then the team will return in 1997 to examine the changes in lifestyle and health among the children.
“We do it for humanitarian reasons, the socio-economic aspects and to help childhood mortality decrease,” he said. “It’s been proven that when childhood mortality decreases, population growth also comes down. Parents are willing to practice birth control when they know their children are going to live.
“I really think we can turn the thing around,” he said.
Tax-deductible contributions to support the nutritional effort for indigenous Mexican children may be made to Mexico Nutrition Project and sent to: Henry Nemcik, Texas A&M Agriculture Development Foundation, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843-2142.