Help Stop Malnutrition from the Start for Children Like Juan Pablo

January 24, 2018

Original story published December 4, 2017.

At first glance, the field that stretched out towards the horizon wasn’t particularly scenic.

A dirt road, rust-colored, cut through patchy areas of green weeds; the remnants of harvested corn stalks reached upward. In this part of Katunil, Mexico, the plants were wild and unkempt, obscuring the sights and sounds of animals that scuttled amongst the brush. But Juan Pablo, dressed in white with a head of thick, dark hair, was impossible to miss as he ran towards us.

The vivacious four-year-old was shod in shoes the shade of cornflower, which left dusty prints in the ground. His cousin, Cristopher, followed closely behind. The two, a near-matching pair in white, were inseparable. Both were eager to play and had no shortage of energy as they chased after each other.

Watching Juan Pablo, it was hard to believe that the preschooler frequently fell ill with the flu, according to his mother, Catalina.  But she noted that both he and his younger brother, nine-month-old Oscar, often came down with flu-related symptoms. The red mosquito bites that speckled Oscar’s body were also tangible reminders of other insidious threats, like malaria and the Zika virus, that are present in the country.

While Juan Pablo’s grandfather, Mateo, has knowledge of medicinal plants that are known to alleviate issues like stomachaches, fevers, and kidney stones, other health problems issues require medical care—a resource that is scant in this rural village. Doctors in town are only available in the mornings, Catalina shared, and emergencies require a 300-peso (roughly $16 USD) taxi ride to the city of Izamal for treatment.

"...other health problems issues require medical care—a resource that is scant in this rural village."

Without quick and easily accessible medical care, untreated ailments can rapidly become life-threatening—and cost more to treat than many families can afford. But Catalina and her husband, Pedro Pablo, believe that the health of their children is paramount. The hardest part about being a dad is when the boys get sick, Pedro shared with us.

The family’s lack of access to nutritious foods parallels their inadequate access to health care. Clean water is only available from a truck that makes regularly scheduled stops in the community, but purchasing water means less money for food. The bulk of the meals that Catalina and Pedro put on the table are made up of simple, starch-heavy packaged goods like rice, beans, and pasta that are provided by a local non-profit along with staples like oil, sugar, powdered milk, as well as marzipan and cookies. 

Whatever the family has to spend on food goes toward less expensive meats, like pork or beef, and some fruits and vegetables. However, for growing children like Juan Pablo and Oscar, the availability of nutritious foods is not frequent enough to support proper physical and cognitive development.

But with access to vitamins, what’s on Juan Pablo’s plate isn’t the only thing that will determine his potential for a healthy future. When we visited Juan Pablo and his family, he received vitamin A and a deworming tablet for the first time.

These interventions will help improve his immunity against infections, protect his eyesight, fight off intestinal parasites, and much more. Now, the boy with an affinity for drawing and unbridled energy also has a better chance at a brighter future.

View the original piece and full photography at

Photo credit: Matt Dayka for Vitamin Angels