Fellow Since 1995
This profile was prepared when Abel Albino was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995.
With the aim of eliminating childhood malnutrition as a major health problem in Argentina, physician Abel Albino has devised a multi-pronged strategy that includes low-cost "micro-hospitals," where malnourished toddlers can receive the specialized medical attention that they need. After implementing the program in Mendoza on a pilot basis, he intends to replicate it throughout the country.
The New Idea
Abel Albino, a leading Argentine physician, is engaged in an all-out attack on his country's shocking problem of childhood malnutrition. The soldiers in his battle are a corps of community volunteers and an interdisciplinary group of professionals working on a pro bono publico basis. The weapons include "lactation clinics" to stimulate proper nursing techniques, a preschool nutritional assistance program and "micro-hospitals" where malnourished toddlers can receive specialized medical attention. An apartment donated as office space serves as headquarters for the Cooperative for Infant Nutrition (CONIN), the nonprofit organization that Abel founded and directs in the province of Mendoza.The crux and most novel feature of Abel's idea for "combating malnutrition on all fronts" is the construction of "micro-hospitals" dedicated exclusively to treatment and recuperation of malnourished infants. The layout of these new structures emphasizes function over form, cleanliness and cost-efficiency. Abel estimates that the operating costs of the micro-hospitals will average only one-fifth to one-tenth of the comparable sum in general hospitals in Argentina. A micro-hospital in Mendoza will serve as the pilot for an initiative that Albino plans to spread throughout Argentina.
According to UNICEF estimates, there are some four million malnourished children in Argentina. Of those four million, 40,000 malnourished children above the age of five and 26,000 under five reside in Mendoza. It is further estimated that three out of every four childhood deaths caused by nutrition-related problems could have been avoided with proper medical intervention. Traditional public hospitals in poor sections of Argentina suffer from more than a lack of resources and trained personnel to treat the problem of childhood malnutrition effectively. The physical conditions of such hospitals are frequently squalid or, at the very least, unsanitary. The hospitals are thus danger zones for children suffering from malnutrition, as related immuno-deficiencies make undernourished children easily susceptible to other diseases. As Dr. Albino has observed, "Today's sad reality is that poor, undernourished children who enter our public hospitals have a greater chance of dying from infections they contract in those hospitals than they do of recovery."
In less than two years, Abel has inaugurated three lactation clinics in the province of Mendoza, offered programs of nutritional assistance to 120 families with preschoolers living in areas of extreme poverty, begun construction of the micro-hospital, designed an epidemiological survey to determine the real prevalence of malnutrition in Argentina and opened an agro-fishery center that will help diversify the source of protein in Argentine diets. He plans to consolidate each pilot program in the Mendoza setting and then diffuse the models throughout Argentina.CONIN's initial success was the inauguration of Argentina's first lactation clinic in the Sicoli de Lavalle Hospital in Mendoza. This clinic provides pregnant women and lactating mothers with counseling and training in proper breast feeding techniques, with the aim of ensuring that their infants receive adequate nourishment. Three lactation clinics are now in operation in Mendoza, and Abel plans to open several others within the next year. Eventually, he hopes to install a lactation clinic in every hospital throughout Argentina.Abel is now only one small step away from realizing his vision of a micro-hospital for the care of malnourished infants. The blueprints for the building have been drawn, the site chosen, the groundwork laid and the staff selected, and the pilot micro-hospital will very soon be treating its first patients.CONIN itself has no budget to purchase the land or materials to build the micro-hospital, or to pay the salaries of its professional staff. But the development of the micro-hospital has been made possible by the generous support of diverse sectors of the Mendozan community. From the business community, Dr. Albino received donations of land, construction materials and modest sums of money. Mendoza's leading architect provided pro bono publico services, designing a cost-efficient yet dignified and humane environment for the micro-hospital, atop a solid structural foundation. And a stable and hard-working volunteer corps of Mendozan women has secured donations of milk, money and labor from other community sources. In recent months, Mendoza's Minister of Health and Secretary of Public Works have pledged their organizations' full cooperation with the new venture.For the many Mendozans whom he has mobilized in support of his cause, Abel's multi-pronged strategy offers an innovative and extraordinarily promising blueprint for change. And he continues to find new converts for his ideas. After he outlined his approach to solving the global problem of malnutrition in a recent public lecture, a line of some fifty people-doctors, social workers, biochemists, medical students, nurses and nutritionists-formed to ask the same question: "How can I get involved?"Abel Albino is confident that he will witness the day when malnutrition is no longer a substantial problem in Argentina. Secure in this knowledge, he is already imagining how he will one day convert the micro-hospital into a drug rehabilitation center.As for measuring the progress of his strategy, he intends to use one revealing test. As he puts it, "I'll know I've succeeded when we close down the lactation clinics and shut the doors to the micro-hospitals."
Long recognized and respected as the province of Mendoza's premier physician, Abel Albino could not sleep at nights knowing that he and his medical associates were focusing increasingly on medical issues and technologies of the future while fellow Argentines suffered from unconquered problems and illnesses of the past. Inspired by the public service model of Mother Teresa, Abel began a quest to identify a pressing human need that he, as a trained pediatrician, could fulfill in a way no others had before him.By early 1992, Abel's personal crusade had become clear: he would dedicate himself to solving the serious problem of child malnutrition in Argentina. Against the counsel of colleagues and to the disbelief of neighbors, he resigned from his prestigious position as head of emergency services at Mendoza's leading hospital, thereby surrendering a substantial salary and benefit package, to devote his full energies to the development of an effective strategy for combating malnutrition.Before embarking on his plan to create Argentina's first micro-hospital for the care of malnourished children, Abel put himself through an intensive apprenticeship under the tutelage of world-renowned Chilean physician Dr. Fernando Monckeberg. After establishing CONIN in Mendoza, Abel invited Dr. Monckeberg to serve as its vice-president, lending instant credibility to the fledgling Argentine organization. It was not long, however, before Abel stepped out of the shadow of his Chilean mentor and planted his own footprints on a trail that leads to the eradication of childhood malnutrition in Argentina.Along with his unwavering confidence in the social impact of the micro-hospital, Abel's personal charisma, contagious enthusiasm and enormous capacity to motivate and mobilize others have enabled him to transform a quixotic vision into a path-breaking reality. "He has converted this challenge into a model for imitation, transformed the impossible into an adventure, and the adventure into a concrete success," Miguel Horacio Liendo, the architect contracted by Abel to design the project, has observed. And those sentiments are echoed by the many volunteers who have generously given time and resources in return for only one promise made by Abel Albino: the chance to make a meaningful difference in the lives of needy children.