Addressing Malnutrition in Rural Ecuador


Our summer interns in Ecuador have been working to reduce malnutrition in Andean communities. JP Gorham, Dartmouth ’11, can fill you in on what they’ve accomplished so far:




After returning from my first MEDLIFE Mobile Clinic in Cebadas, Ecuador three years ago, I was restless. MEDLIFE’s commitment to sustainable health had inspired me, but I couldn’t help but think that we could be doing more. I wanted to help the communities on the ground, but as a student, what could I do?

Before our internship in Riobamba began, Rachel and I spent time researching the problem of malnutrition in Ecuador. We found that in spite of a huge monetary commitment, the government’s preventative approach to eradicating child malnutrition had largely failed to improve the situation. In a 2004 survey, 23% of Ecuadorian children under the age of 5 are chronically malnourished. This number jumps to 40% in the Andean region, where we’re living this summer. We wanted to help in the Ecuadorian governments efforts to bring those numbers down.




Earlier this year, Ecuador announced a new program of malnutrition intervention: Desnutrición Cero (zero malnutrition). Shortly after arriving in Riobamba, Rachel, Meredith, Maria (MEDLIFE patient follow-up coordinator) and I traveled to Colta, a community high in the Andes mountain range that the government is using as a pilot region for Desnutrición Cero. We met with the head of the community’s health programs to discuss how we could help, but he became suspicious when we mentioned we worked with a medical NGO. He started speaking a bit faster, and we picked up a tone of annoyance in his voice.




We understood where his irritation was coming from: many global health organizations operate on their own terms, without regard for government priorities or programs. This approach results in time and money needlessly spent developing parallel programs. These valuable resources are better utilized when NGOs work in conjunction with existing efforts. In Pamplona Alta in Lima, Peru, for example, MEDLIFE has come across two abandoned clinics built by NGOs that failed to coordinate their work with the local government. The NGOs, lacking the resources to staff and supply the clinic for years on end, simply packed up and left, leaving empty structures in their wake. The community leader in Colta wanted to make sure that we were willing to work closely with the government, so as to avoid such wasteful efforts.

I don’t have many technical skills or perfect Spanish, but I believe that committed students have the ability to work with communities to improve their health outcomes. In response to the doctor’s apprehension, Rachel made it very clear that we were willing to help in whichever way he thought most valuable. MEDLIFE takes a collaborative approach, listening closely to families and communities in need, and incorporating their own goals into our mission.

So far, we have worked with Ministry of Public Health officials to plan a health-promotion video that will highlight the different causes and consequences of chronic malnutrition. We know that past programs have had issues with enrollment. By promoting Desnutrición Cero in poor communities and identifying barriers to access, we hope to help the government increase involvement in the Andean region. Because this program is still in its pilot stages, we have a unique opportunity to impact its implementation.

This project illustrates my favorite part of our organization: if you can dream it, you can do it. I have worked very hard for MEDLIFE over the past three years. In response to my demonstrated commitment, MEDLIFE’s leadership entrusted two other students and I with an internship that would allow us to effect a greater change in Ecuador. Rachel, Meredith and I are working hard to prove them right!

JP provides a clear example of MEDLIFE’s core philosophy regarding student involvement in global aid work. As JP notes, many students lack the technical skills and experience to develop sustainable, effective programs on their own. However, this doesn’t mean that they can’t help improve the lives of the poor. MEDLIFE’s dedicated staff of professionals in Latin America is always seeking to involve students in new and meaningful ways – to harness their positive energy, enthusiasm, and intelligence in bringing about positive change in the communities we serve. We trust that motivated undergraduate students will step up to this responsibility. And it looks our team of summer interns in Ecuador are continuing to prove us right!


Hear it From MEDLIFErs

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Reya Seby
Western University

This trip motivated me more to pursue a career in the healthcare field so that I can use my resources to help those who need it the most, similar to MEDLIFE’s mission.

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Victoria DiCanio
University of Connecticut

It was most enjoyable to finish the hard work and see how big a difference a group of individuals can make. It was such an amazing experience.

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Anita Woo
University of Toronto

I enjoyed the mobile clinics the most, especially the dental and triage portions. I would definitely recommend a MEDLIFE trip, it was a great experience.

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David Saff
Maclay High School

The most enjoyable part of my trip was hanging out with the amazing group of kids I was with. I would highly recommend a MEDLIFE volunteer trip to others.

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Sydney Sansone
Nova Southeastern University

This trip made everything that I was learning in my public health courses come to life and immersed me in a new culture while also learning about medicine.

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Abygail Youmans
College of Charleston

Being involved with MEDLIFE is not like joining another club - its bigger than that. It is about joining a movement that seeks to help change people’s quality of life for forever.

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Emi Hofmann
University of Central Florida

Not only was I able to participate in a week long Mobile Clinic, shadowing doctors of all types of specialties including pharmacy, dentistry, gynecology, and more, but I was also able to learn about the culture and visit incredible places.

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Julian Takagi-Stewart
University of Toronto

One thing that I really loved about this trip was that MEDLIFE made sure that the volunteers got an understanding of the complexity of issues that lead to underprivileged people in communities outside of the main city

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Hannah Van Hofwegen
University of Ottawa

Whether it was basketball with the local kids, assisting the doctors, talking with families, building washrooms, holding babies, or spending time with the people who were on the SLT with me, this was an amazing opportunity that I would do over and over again.

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Isabelle Holt
Cornell University

I loved learning about the patients MEDLIFE has followed and how they offer real help to people with chronic/urgent conditions. It is amazing how the organization formed real connections with the communities.

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Valerie Lindeborg

Our family had the privilege of participating in multiple trips with Nick [founder] and his amazing staff. Their expertise made the trips unforgettable while instilling in my boys the fundamentals of good character: selflessness, compassion, and empathy.

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Harry Vildibill
University of Georgia

As an aspiring physician, MEDLIFE motivated me to further continue my goal of becoming a doctor. In fact, I enjoyed the Tanzania Service Learning Trip so much that I decided to go on another trip to Cusco, Peru.