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At a glance: Peru

Peru: Cold weather deadly for children

© UNICEF Peru/2005
In some communities where UNICEF provides aid, 100 per cent of children are chronically malnourished, making them vulnerable to deadly respiratory illness.

By Dana Schimmel

NEW YORK, 28 June 2005 - In the mountainous regions of Peru, children routinely die from exposure to cold weather during the winter months. Between June and August, temperatures often plummet below 0 degrees Celsius in the higher regions of the Andes, resulting in what many refer to as a cold weather ‘emergency’.

UNICEF officials are trying to correct this misnomer. According to Andres Franco, UNICEF's Representative in Peru, the deadly cold snaps are predictable and the deaths preventable:

"Here we are - UNICEF - doing child survival right there; trying to make a contribution and to avoid it from happening. We even find ourselves trying not to call it an ‘emergency’ anymore, because how can it be an emergency when we know it happens every year?"

© UNICEF Peru/2005
In the mountainous regions of Peru, children routinely die from exposure to cold weather during the winter months.

In some areas where UNICEF is active, 100 per cent of local children are chronically
malnourished. Lacking proper nutrition and shelter from extreme climate conditions, they are especially susceptible to infections such as bronchitis and pneumonia, which is the main cause of death in these cold circumstances. 

"Usually the under-ones are the most vulnerable. They get respiratory diseases and then they're gone very quickly," explains Mr. Franco.

If supplies are not transported in by May, it often becomes too late. Under heavy snowfall roads become impassable, and the at-risk communities - mainly those located more than 3500 metres above sea-level - become unreachable. Thousands of children are in danger.

"This year we're being a little more aggressive on the preventive side. We have prepared the brigades that are supposed to reach these communities with the Ministry of Health. We have sent stoves already to these areas that we know will be hit, and we have sent garments and clothes for the under-ones, in particular, and for the mothers."

© UNICEF Peru/2005
Is cold weather an ‘emergency’ when it’s predictable and the deaths it causes are preventable?

UNICEF is also sponsoring local workshops to help teach mothers and health care workers to recognize symptoms of exposure related to cold weather. But despite these efforts, it is certain that more children will suffer as they have over the last few years.

By mid-July 2004, 60 children had perished - their deaths attributed to freezing temperatures.

"Some of the numbers we have are basically those that the Ministry of Health reports and I'm sure that's the tip of the iceberg.”

UNICEF routinely provides warm clothes, blankets, stoves, and antibiotics. Local government institutions and organizations - and even Peru's Minister of Health, Pilar Mazzetti - have committed to ending the ongoing tragedy.

"The sad story about this is that the most affected - as always - are the most excluded. These are usually children that are excluded," explains Mr. Franco.

Last year, UNICEF representatives boldly stated that the Peruvian government was not doing enough to prevent children from dying, a statement that did not please the government.

"We have engaged constructively with the Peruvian authorities on this issue. It has become such a part of the local culture that children must die of cold weather every year. And personally, I don't think this is normal. This should not happen today."

Sadly, despite the efforts of UNICEF and other organizations, the situation is likely to repeat itself as the coldest winter temperatures usually occur around August and September.



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