Impoverished children in rural Guatemala like Vanessa Celia Valdez lack access to health care services.

Health Care Needs in Rural Guatemala

Key takeaways:

  • How health outcomes in Guatemala compare to the United States.
  • How the lack of medical care in Guatemala contributes to poverty.
  • Health care solutions proposed by Cross Catholic Outreach and its Guatemalan ministry partners.

According to the World Health Organization, Guatemala does not have enough health care workers — medical doctors, nurses and midwives — to meet primary health care needs. This is especially true in rural communities in places such as the Diocese of Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu, where it can take up to two hours to reach the nearest health care facility. In many cases, impoverished families must forego medical care because they can barely afford to meet other pressing needs, such as food and housing repairs.

These challenges are steep, but as you will learn, Cross Catholic Outreach believes health improvements are possible through the efforts of the Church and her people.

A Guatemalan girl hugs her mother while standing outside a wooden house.
Mariela Alvarez, 5, hugs her mother, Cristina, in the Línea 2 community of the Diocese of Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu.

Comparing Health in Guatemala and the United States

According to the CIA World Factbook, “Guatemala is a predominantly poor country that struggles in several areas of health and development, including infant, child, and maternal mortality [and] malnutrition.” 

  • The infant mortality rate in Guatemala is 26.18 deaths per 1,000 live births — five times higher than in the United States.
  • The maternal mortality rate in Guatemala is 95 deaths per 100,000 live births — five times higher than in the United States.
  • Guatemala has one of the highest child malnutrition rates in the Western Hemisphere with 12.4% of children under age 5 underweight — compared to just 0.4% in the United States.

At the same time, the risk of major infectious diseases in Guatemala is high, including food or waterborne diseases such as bacterial diarrhea, hepatitis A and typhoid fever — along with illnesses transmitted by mosquitoes, including dengue fever and malaria.

Guatemala also has a high concentration of particle pollution — tiny solids or liquids that are in the air and have been generated from sources like volcanoes and even the wood-fired ovens families use for cooking. This air pollution may explain why the leading cause of death in Guatemala is lower respiratory infections. Other main causes of death include heart disease, chronic kidney disease, diarrheal diseases and neonatal disorders. Notably, kidney and diarrheal conditions are often linked to unsafe drinking water.

LEARN MORE: Solar Farms Bring Water to Guatemala

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A Guatemalan girl with shortly cropped hair sits in a chair.
Impoverished children in Guatemala’s Diocese of Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu with chronic health conditions face barriers to health care access.

The Link Between Poverty and Health in Guatemala

Poverty significantly impacts health beginning before birth and continuing throughout a person’s life. Hunger and malnutrition during pregnancy have devastating lifelong effects, including irreversible damage to brain development that ultimately affects a child’s ability to do well in school and eventually earn a living.

Guatemala has one of the worst child hunger rates in the world, with approximately half of children under age 5 suffering from malnutrition. Chronic hunger severely weakens children who are already in a weakened state, leaving them vulnerable to illnesses. While Guatemala’s constitution guarantees the right to universal health care, services are nearly impossible to access in rural areas. In fact, one in 10 Guatemalan mothers do not receive any prenatal care, the highest rate in Central America.

Another link between poverty and health is found in water and sanitation. One in three people in rural Guatemala lack access to modern sanitation facilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “waste from infected individuals can contaminate a community’s land and water, increasing the risk of infection for other individuals.” In these situations, people have no choice but to drink contaminated water — and when health care is not readily available, the results can be devastating.

LEARN MORE: Addressing Poverty in Guatemala

A Guatemalan mother, toddler and grandmother seated at a picnic table.
Esperanza Lorenzo, right, pictured with her daughter and granddaughter.

A Family’s Personal Struggle With Health in Guatemala

Esperanza Lorenzo’s biggest fear is her grandchildren being struck down by illness before they have a chance to grow up.

It’s a tragic situation she’s witnessed time and time again in her community. Little ones become afflicted with diarrhea from dirty drinking water, leaving their tiny bodies severely dehydrated, malnourished and near death.

Tragically, in Guatemala, one out of 42 children don’t live to see their fifth birthday, and drinking contaminated water is a contributing cause of these untimely deaths.

Compounding this tragedy is the fact that parents and grandparents of children like these often have no choice but to witness the suffering because they are incapable of finding solutions without help. For example, the nearest medical facility to Esperanza’s community is two hours away, and the cost of transportation is too much for her family to afford.

Even if they could find a way to reach the clinic, they could never pay the cost of medical bills or medicines. Because of circumstances like these, families are often forced to rely on homemade herbal remedies and hope for the best.

RELATED: A New Home for a Guatemalan Mom

A mother and son look on as a man points to a paper.
Victor Manuel Garcia, an employee of Caritas Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu, meets with a family to discuss the ministry’s plans.

Expanding Health Care Access in Rural Guatemala

Cross Catholic Outreach is collaborating with Guatemala’s Diocese of Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu and its local Caritas ministry to improve access to quality health care, with long-term plans of building and equipping two health clinics.

Cross Catholic Outreach first began working with this diocese and its local Caritas ministry in 2018. Since then, our generous donors have laid the foundation for community transformation through ongoing efforts to address urgent needs for water, food, agriculture, housing and education. In particular, water projects — including the construction of solar-powered community water systems — are necessary to the infrastructure as Caritas expands into important health initiatives.

The first step to improving health will be surveying families in nine rural communities to determine the most pressing medical needs and to select the best location to serve impoverished families. In the meantime, immediate plans include hiring a health coordinator technician, providing much-needed medicines, purchasing medical storage equipment and offering workshops on health topics.

LEARN MORE: Catholics Empowered a Successful Poverty Relief Program in Guatemala

Headshot of a Guatemalan girl.
Esperanza’s granddaughter, Johana, is counting on faithful friends like you to support health in rural Guatemala.

Be a Part of the Church’s Health Care Solution in Guatemala

For families in Guatemala like Esperanza’s, Caritas Suchitepéquez-Retalhuleu offers hope in a brighter future — a hope rooted in Jesus Christ himself. Through its partnership with Cross Catholic Outreach, this local Catholic ministry has been able to build up its capacity for service, and the ministry is now prepared to launch a new health program to bless rural families with the dignified care they deserve.

Cross Catholic Outreach is prepared to bring health solutions to families in rural Guatemala — but we need visionary friends like you to support this critical outreach.

Proceeds from this campaign will be used to cover any expenditures incurred through June 30, 2024, the close of our ministry’s fiscal year. In the event that more funds are raised than needed to fully fund the project, the excess funds, if any, will be used to meet the most urgent needs of the ministry.