The Feed the Children Foundation launched a Hungary-wide action on May 15, within whose framework the local governments of disadvantaged communities with pharmacies and public health clinics can apply for HUF 100,000 (USD 350) a month. From the money the organization will provide baby formula, vitamins and medicine to children and expectant mothers on the advice of general practitioners. Many children already find themselves in a desperate situation even before birth. However, this information often does not come to light because in Hungary the subject of child hunger is taboo.
According to a recent report on Hungary issued by the Save the Children Foundation, for every 1000 Hungarian children, 6.1 die before their 5th birthday. With this Hungary lags not only behind the EU average and that of the other Visegrad countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia), but also Libya, Bulgaria, Cuba and Macedonia.
At a press conference held on Friday at the seat of the Hungarian Journalists Countrywide Alliance (MUOSZ), United Nations Children’s Rights Committee member Maria Herczog said the economic crisis seriously affected EU countries, with every fourth child in Europe now living in poverty. In Hungary’s case, the proportion is much worse, she said, adding that this was not always the case. “After the system change in 1989 Hungary was the only country where the number of children taken into state custody did not grow. At that time the quality of social services was very high. Since then the situation has continuously deteriorated, plummeting below every tolerable limit,” said Herczog.
Three kinds of hunger
The children`s legal rights defender said there could be no doubt that children living in deep poverty were going hungry. She said this was not the case decades ago no matter how bad the situation was. She said the exact number was not known but that many tens of thousands of children “go to bed hungry” in Hungary today.
Another kind of hunger is the lack of a quality diet, which affects many hundreds of thousands of Hungarian children. This means that, while the children do not go hungry, they do not receive the minimal nutrition required. Among the serious long-term effects of this are poor development, lack of energy andlack of motivation to play or study, all of which is harmful to them. “Actually, their lives are being wasted,” Herczog said.
The third kind is when the child is deprived of nutrients while still in its mother’s womb, because the mother did not have access to food in sufficient quality and quantity, which often results in premature birth. “In this respect Hungary’s situation is terrible,” she said.
Bátmonostor is a settlement of 1600 in the southwest part of Bács-Kiskun county. Since October of last year they have been testing the impact of doses of medicine on the children of poor families. Dr. Magdona Gyulai, the general practitioner for the settlement, said most of the locals live from agriculture, public assistance and unofficial work. Her practice is mixed, with patients ranging from newborns to 100-year olds. At present she is overseeing the health of 118 children under the age of 18, of which 25 are receiving the medicinal aid. Previously nearly everyone possessed a public health card that entitled them to free health care. Earlier, physically handicapped children or those suffering from asthma received medicine free of charge. However, two years ago this was taken away from the asthma patients, says the doctor.
Undernourished children are more vulnerable to infection. The doctor believes that twenty years ago the incidence of upper respiratory infection was one-tenth current levels. At that time it was inconceivable that a three-year-old would develop a lung infection, and if it happened, it appeared in the medical weekly. Nowadays, she diagnoses young children with lung infections every three weeks. She says undernourishment is one cause. The other cause is that parents cannot afford medicine.
The 25 children were chosen mainly from those who previously received free health care, while the rest came to the program from families whose per capital income did not exceed HUF 30-40,000 (USD 120-150) a month. The doctor prepared the list with the help of the children protection officer (védőnő), because she believes the latter is more familiar with the family’s financial situation.
The first two months were difficult because the families did not want to believe such an opportunity existed as previously every door was closed to them. The procedure was simple: the pharmacy got a list of participating families, the general practitioner issued a prescription, and the parent or expectant mother went to have it filled, with the general practitioner paying for the medicine instead of the patient. They developed this system to ensure that the money will be used for medicine and other purposes.
The program included three pregnant women, one who had already given birth to daughters aged two and three. The elder daughter had a birth weight of just 870 grams and had to remain in hospital for eight months before she could be taken home. The father left the family, the mother lived with her own mother. They tried to create an orderly environment but this was not possible “from nothing.” The father returned, asked for forgiveness, and the result of this was a second daughter whose birth weight was 1100 grams. The older one was frequently sick and always suffering from infections, but since starting the program has hardly come down with anything. The mother later acknowledged that she was not able to fill the prescription but was ashamed to admit it. This is why statistics on hunger are often misleading, noted the doctor.
Nourishment is not the biggest rift between rich and poor
According to sociologist László Bass, child hunger is taboo, and for this reason many families do not acknowledge just how large the problem is. He says that it does not matter how many because in Hungary not even ten or 100 children should go hungry.
While he agrees with Herczog that the crisis seriously affected all of Europe, he said Hungary was the only country that did not respond to the crisis with measures intended to help the poorest echelons of society.
Bass believes there is good measurable data, such as birth weight. The children of poor families are born 300 grams lighter than those born to normal parents. The other thing that can be measured is nursing. In poor families the children are either not able to nurse, or only able to nurse a short time. When the mother’s milk runs out, then it is not replaced with formula but rather with sugar water or sucking on soft dumplings, observed Bass.
A joint study recently conducted by the Children Feeding Foundation (GYEA) and Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) concludes that in one disadvantaged community in Nógrád county, child poverty has increased from 86 percent to 96 percent since 2009.
These families literally have no money for anything, said Bass. The majority of civil organizations concentrate on foodstuffs but this is not the largest gulf between poor and better-off families. The poor are at even more disadvantage when it comes to health, education, or chance of avoiding social exclusion. The families are only focused on survival, and anything beyond that is already a luxury, said the sociologist.
Such places can be helped with complex solutions so that people can make progress in all areas. It is not possible to achieve anything with simply assistance, says Bass. He thinks the “poor people’s pharmacy” is a very important initative, because nothing denied children as babies can be replaced later.
Gábor Király, who is the president of GYEA, believes those who cannot afford to feed their children during the day are impoverished. They do not live in deep poverty but rather “wading knee-deep in the void.”
“Weak, slow, stupid, sick” observes Király, who says that whether or not something comes of a a child is determined when they are still very young. “We have not given them the chance, in fact, we have expressly denied them the opportunity to be a healthy person,” says the sociologist, who says the program gives those without hope a chance. He says this chance costs HUF 100,00 a month, but that roughly one and a half times more is needed so as to avoid having to “measure on the pharmicists` scale who gets it and who doesn’t”.
As Bass previously mentioned, food comes first. For many families this means 40 kilograms of flour. Babies, children, adults eat the same dough cooked on a metal slab. Király says that when he sees obese children in the countryside, they are only steps away from spiritual and physical collapse, because “one can only get fat on flour, not develop in a healthy manner”. The fact that the families participating in the program do not receive money means they do not find themselves in the position of being forced to decide.
The foundation president said the additional work is performed by general practitioners without receiving compensation. Unfortunately, the opportunity for drug manufacturers to help is very limited. The panel agreed that the law has closed nearly every small gate to selling medicines at a discount.
Herczog added that many settlements have neither a pharmacy nor local businesses, and that for this reason obtaining basic foodstuffs is a serious task. But an even greater tragedy lies in the fact that over the past three years more and more children have been taken away from their families due to poverty. Often the newborns are not even allowed to return home with their parents. Even though the local governments have an obligation to help, they do not. Instead, they place the children in state orphanages which are often no better off materially than the families from which the children were taken. The system itself propagates the poverty, said the doctor.
Those who help these families are also living in poverty, and the hopelessness of their condition depends on the ability and willingness of local governments to help them. “A more devilish system than this is difficult to imagine,” said Herczog.