(This story was originally published November 23, 2008.)
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- With arms and legs so skinny they look like twigs, 2-year-old Davidson Pierre has to struggle just to sit. So he remains sprawled on his back and stares listlessly at the ceiling. He doesn't smile. He doesn't cry.
For eight days now, the boy has been on a high caloric diet of enriched milk and doctors say his fragile body is responding.
Davidson, like the others at the makeshift Martissant children's malnutrition clinic run by Doctors Without Borders, shows all of the telltale signs of extreme malnourishment -- stunted growth, brittle orange hair, skinny arms and legs and bloated bellies.
"When we found them, they were nearly ready to die, " Max Cosci, the head of a Belgian contingent of Doctors Without Borders, said surveying the room of acutely malnourished children and their worried mothers. "Now they are doing much better."
With UNICEF estimating that 300,000 children were affected by the string of storms that battered Haiti this summer, destroying crops and livestock at a time of already high food prices, international relief workers are worried that already vulnerable Haitian children are even more at risk of dying.
The concerns come as aid workers finally gain access to sparsely populated hilly villages in regions like Baie d'Orange in southeast Haiti, where 26 children died in the last month, reportedly due to severe malnutrition.
Fednel Zidor, government delegate for the southeast region of Haiti, said Saturday that 46 children were hospitalized in recent weeks for severe cases of malnutrition from the Baie d'Orange area. Others are being treated at home.
"Forty-five to 50 percent of the population in the Baie d'Orange region is being affected, " he said. "We can say we have a famine situation in that region."
Nobody knows if the problem is more widespread than that.
SCALE OF PROBLEM
Doctors Without Borders, an independent humanitarian group based in France, is in the middle of an assessment of Haiti's southeast region that started three weeks ago, and UNICEF only recently completed a survey of the Northwest region.
"We still don't have a proper picture of what's going on, " said Isabelle Mouniaman Nara, who heads a Doctors Without Borders mission in Port-au-Prince. "Some of the nongovernmental organizations did rough assessments . . . and came up with high numbers."
The first Doctors Without Borders team arrived in Baie d'Orange about three weeks ago. Initially, doctors struggled to find patients in the mountainous region, accessible only by donkey or on foot, and more than two hours outside of the town of Jacmel.
Now they are being flooded with them, Cosci says, after airlifting 20 children and their mothers to hospitals in the capital for emergency treatment.
Shortly after arriving at the Martissant clinic, two children died, said Dr. James Pallett who has been treating the kids. Pallett said all of the children being treated share a common trait: they are malnourished -- not because of starvation, but from not eating enough protein.
Haiti's poor rely heavily on starchy foods like rice and plantains because protein-rich foods like meat are too expensive.
Cosci says that while doctors are still searching for answers, he believes one of the problems is the way in which villagers cultivate the land. "They are just cutting the trees [and] planting on the mountain, and it is not good for the soil, " Cosci said.