Children’s resident on 20/20

Peter Rohloff, MD, a fourth year resident at Children’s Hospital Boston, was recently featured on ABC’s 20/20, where he was interviewed about his work as the founder of Wuqu’ Kawoq (pronounced woo-ku- ka-woke), a nonprofit organization committed to providing cultural and linguistically appropriate healthcare to the indigenous people of the Guatemalan Highlands.

Rohloff founded Wuqu’ Kawoq in 2007 to help improve the disparity gap in heath between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Guatemala, as well as battle malnutrition among indigenous children.

It was his hope that by successfully working with smaller sections of the Guatemalan population, larger, more recognized aid organizations could benefit from Wuqu’ Kawoq’s intimate knowledge of the indigenous people of Guatemala. But in the past year Wuqu’ Kawoq has received substantial media attention, which has increased their fundraising efforts and influence in the area. As their reputation grew, so did the scope of their mission. Programs were expanded and thanks to a recently awarded scale-up grant from USAID, an independent agency that provides economic, development and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States, Wuqu’ Kawoq has been helping more people than Rohloff ever thought possible.

Rohloff and two patients in Guatemala

“We received a lot of great coverage when we first began our mission. That attention increased our fundraising efforts and in turn the amount of people we were helping,” he says. “But the grant from USAID has really allowed us to grow. By 2012 we should be able to reach 5,000 more children in Gautama than we’re currently helping.”

To better fight malnutrition among Guatemala’s poor, Rohloff and his team are finding new and more effective ways to distribute Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic Food (RUTF), which are specifically formulated food products created for community-based treatment of malnutrition in children. In rural areas like the Guatemalan Highlands, where fresh water or cooking utensils can be scarce, RUTFs are becoming a key weapon in the war on malnutrition.

“RUTFs are a complete food, with vitamins, nutrients and calories that are ready to eat out of the package, so there aren’t a lot of barriers to using them in place like Guatemala,” Rohloff says. “It’s quick, easy and if properly distributed they can do a lot to fight malnutrition.”

In addition to bolstering the direct support they offer to people, another example of Wuqu’ Kawoq’s expansion is its developing role as policy influencer. By honing and perfecting its distribution methods of RUTFs, Rohloff and team hope to demonstrate to the local government and other aid organizations that their methods are the most effective ways to prevent malnutrition. Thus far they’ve expanded to 80 different programs and are hopeful more will follow.

But before the Guatemalan government or larger aid organizations will consider changing their procedures, they’ll need hard evidence that Wuqu’ Kawoq’s methods provide the most support for the local population. Organizing that kid of data in a rural area like Guatemalan Highlands is a challenge, but one that Rohloff and his team are prepared to face.

“Obviously our first goal here is to fight malnutrition among Guatemalan children,” he says. “But our work is also part of a research initiative that we can use to conclusively show that this type of nutritional approach works the best and should be adapted at the policy level.”

Even if they are unsuccessful in convincing the Guatemalan government to adapt their methods, Rholoff is hopeful their expanded presence will influence private Guatemalan healthcare organizations, a rapidly growing and increasingly influential force in local medicine.

“For all its poverty, Guatemala’s health care system has moved at lighting speed towards privatization,” he says. “Like the United States, there already is a vast and confusing array of private healthcare organizations in Guatemala. Anything we can do to influence that private sector in way that helps these kids will be seen as a win.”