LAVALLE, Argentina — Children from this desperately poor village in northern Argentina rushed to welcome a special hospital train rolling into town, their only chance to receive specialized care for a year.
Hundreds of women and children waited in the scorching heat as the Alma Foundation's three-wagon train came to a screeching halt in Lavalle, a village of 2,200 in Santiago del Estero -- one of Argentina's poorest provinces.
"It's great they come here because they take very good care of us. In the village, we don't have specialists, only a general practitioner," said Graciela Rodriguez, 39, surrounded by her three children.
Nancy Lobo, already a grandmother at 40, was overcome with emotion.
"We heard on the radio that the train was arriving. I immediately brought my three-year-old grandson so that he could be examined," she said, pointing to medicine she received for free to treat the child's bronchitis.
Two pediatricians, a generalist, three dentists, a lab technician, a nurse and a team of volunteers were packed in the train compartments, which were also outfitted with X-ray equipment. Most doctors are Argentines.
In all, some 514 children were examined during this visit to Lavalle and nearby Tapso village.
After 30 years and 150 trips, staff of the mobile hospital have examined 75,000 children in Argentina, where the infant mortality rate is 12.1 per 1,000 live births.
From January through October alone, malnutrition killed 206 children in Misiones, a nearby province plagued with endemic poverty whose infant mortality rate is 12.3 per thousand.
Argentina's official infant mortality rate stands at 13.8 per thousand. Malnutrition affects 12.1 percent of children nationwide with the northeastern and northern regions hardest hit, according to Health Ministry figures for 2009.
"We mostly encounter cases of malnutrition that need a follow-up," said Alma hospital train mission coordinator Ana Lia Gil Cataldo, 32.
She explained that staff must often leave their wagons and travel to very remote areas to convince families to bring their children for an exam.
Most adults in this humble village of small houses nestled in an area once known for its soybean farming are unemployed or temporary workers, as work turned to hardwood forest clearing.
There is a clinic in Lavalle. But everyone in this dusty, wind-swept town complains about it.
"My daughter swallowed a coin," said Elba Aguero as she stepped out of a wagon.
"It was blocking her throat and she seemed about to choke, but the clinic officials refused to examine her immediately. So I had to insist to get an ambulance to carry her to Santiago."
For Elba like many others, the train's arrival brings a big sigh of relief.
"It's a wonderful experience that we share for 15 days with people we don't know," said pediatrician Viviane Ramirez, a 28-year-old Bolivian.
"We are active in areas that do not have access to public health facilities and we are able to provide a true medical follow-up."
But the efforts are not without stumbling blocks.
In Rosario, the country's second-largest city, the train was broken into during a stop.
"They stole most of the donations we were transporting," Ramirez said, as she took her consolation from watching the happy children playing around the wagons of the train.
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