Frequent child death remains a powerful shaper of maternal thinking and

Frequent child death remains a powerful shaper of

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Frequent child death remains a powerful shaper of maternal thinking and practice. In the absence of firm expectation that a child will survive, mother love as we conceptualize it (whether in popular terms or in the psychobiological notion of maternal bonding) is attenuated and delayed with consequences for infant survival. In an environment already pre- carious to young life, the emotional de- tachment of mothers toward some of their babies contributes even further to the spiral of high mortality—high fertil- ity in a kind of macabre lock-step dance of death. The average woman of the Alto expe- riences 9.5 pregnancies, 3.5 child deaths, and 1.5 stillbirths. Seventy percent of all child deaths in the Alto occur in the first six months of life, and 82 percent by the end of the first year. Of all deaths in the community each year, about 45 percent are of children under the age of five. Women of the Alto distinguish be- tween child deaths understood as natural (caused by diarrhea and communicable diseases) and those resulting from sor- cery, the evil eye, or other magical or su- pernatural afflictions. They also recognize a large category of infant deaths seen as fated and inevitable. These hopeless cases are classified by mothers under the folk terminology “child sickness” or “child attack.” Women say that there are at least four- teen different types of hopeless child sickness, but most can be subsumed un- der two categories—chronic and acute. The chronic cases refer to infants who are born small and wasted. They are deathly pale, mothers say, as well as weak and passive. They demonstrate no vital force, no liveliness. They do not suck vigorously; they hardly cry. Such babies can be this way at birth or they can be born sound but soon show no re- sistance, no “fight” against the common crises of infancy: diarrhea, respiratory infections, tropical fevers. The acute cases are those doomed in- fants who die suddenly and violently. They are taken by stealth overnight, of- ten following convulsions that bring on head banging, shaking, grimacing, and shrieking. Women say it is horrible to look at such a baby. If the infant begins to foam at the mouth or gnash its teeth or go rigid with its eyes turned back inside its head, there is absolutely no hope. The infant is “put aside”—left alone—often on the floor in a back room, and allowed to die. These symptoms (which accom- pany high fevers, dehydration, third- stage malnutrition, and encephalitis) are equated by Alto women with madness, epilepsy, and worst of all, rabies, which is greatly feared and highly stigmatized. Most of the infants presented to me as suffering from chronic child sickness were tiny, wasted famine victims, while those labeled as victims of acute child at- tack seemed to be infants suffering from the deliriums of high fever or the convul- sions that can accompany electrolyte im- balance in dehydrated babies.
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  • Spring '16
  • Walker
  • Alto, Bom Jesus, Cruzeiro, Ze Antonio, Bom Jesus da Mata

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