A very expensive health question

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $8.4 million over four years to Boston University’s Center for Global Health and Development to study whether using an antiseptic wash to clean a newborn’s umbilical cord stump, compared to just letting it dry, improves newborn survival rates in Zambia. The Gates Foundation website doesn’t provide many details, nor could I locate details on the BU website.

Yes, it’s true that the first few days of life are very risky for newborns especially in low-income contexts. And yes, it’s true that something seemingly so manageable as care of the umbilical stump can lead to a baby’s death through infection. And yes, there is more to it than using an antiseptic or opting for a dry approach, as a recent study conducted in Bangladesh shows.

So the question is important and more complicated than it appears to be. But $8.4 million dollars?

The nightmare lives on: Indian wars in our time

By Barbara Miller

An article in the Economist (“A national shame,” August 27, 2009) points the finger of blame at the Guatemalan government for the current high rates of childhood malnutrition in Guatemala, especially among the indigenous Maya people (August 29, p. 33). With almost half of its children malnourished, Guatemala is the sixth worst-performing country in the world on this measure.

Guatemala is not the poorest country in Latin America by any means. Other low-income Latin American countries such as Bolivia have reduced child malnutrition. So, the article says, government failure is to blame. The government is to blame for Maya victimization during the decades-long civil war and, now, for failure to put in place a progressive tax structure that would help improve life for impoverished Maya by providing schools and health care. The many very rich people in Guatemala City don’t seem to be listening.

But shouldn’t the finger of blame also point northward to the United States? The genocide and sustained trauma suffered by the Maya during the civil war have to do with hemispheric imperialism as well as state government failure (for more detail, see Jennifer Schirmer’s profile of human rights violations during the country’s civil war, The Guatemalan Military Project). The United States owes a huge debt to the indigenous peoples who suffered so much and who continue to be economically insecure in their own homeland. What does the Obama administration have in mind for Guatemala?

The Economist article says that the high rate of child malnutrition in Guatemala is a matter of national shame. That’s only partly right. We in the United States should be hanging our heads in shame and thinking of how to make things better for the people that our imperialism harmed so deeply.

Photo, “Guatemala siblings”, via Flickr, Creative Commons.