Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ending polio outbreaks in Laos

- by Simon Nazer

It’s an unseasonably cool morning in Senxay Village, near central Laos, and a good day for health teams to go door to door to vaccinate children against polio. For mothers like 25-year-old Vardy, she’s delighted to see her 5-month-old baby boy being immunized. “I’m really happy,” she says with a beaming smile while bouncing her baby up and down. “I know after being vaccinated my baby will stay healthy and safe.”

In remote ethnic villages like these, children are often the most at-risk of preventable diseases and viruses, and it wasn’t so long ago that tragedy had struck in a nearby village.

In late 2015, an 8-year-old boy suddenly had a high fever and weak limbs. Four days later, he tragically died in hospital from vaccine-derived polio virus.

“Reaching every child with vaccinations can be a challenge, but it’s critical we do to stop similar outbreaks,” says Dr. Inphone Maniseng, Director of the District Health Department overseeing a huge vaccination campaign. “Since the outbreak we’ve carried out eight vaccination rounds for thousands of children.”

However, with the support of UNICEF and WHO, one last push to ensure polio is eradicated once and for all is taking place over ten days in 13 provinces and 90 districts to vaccinate about 460,000 children under five.

Mothers like Vardy in the picturesque villages of Laos not only have their children vaccinated, but understand the need to ensure they keep up with regular vaccinations. “I now know that vaccinations are important to keep my children healthy. I’ll make sure I take them for immunization to keep them safe.”

Community participation

A big reason vaccine-derived polio broke out in this part of Laos was, according to village leader Khamphet Chansomphou, because of low awareness and lack of community involvement. “Raising awareness and explaining the importance of being vaccinated to the villagers was really important to ensure they come,” he says in the local health centre.

“They have to clearly understand that while it’s about keeping children healthy, it’s also about education and their economy. Healthy children can go to school and learn, healthy children don’t need costly medicines.”

UNICEF worked closely with partners to create educational materials in local languages to inform villagers about the importance of being vaccinated. UNICEF staff and partners travelled village to village to deliver the information, show videos using mini-projectors and hold open discussions to explain vaccinations.

“By talking to communities we also get a better understanding of how we can serve them,” says Mr Chansomphou. “It works both ways – it helps us think about how to improve our services and understand people’s needs.”

Polio has now been eradicated and children are safe again, but health providers must ensure efforts to reach every child remain to ensure similar outbreaks never happen again.

Nearby, 20 year old mother Xim Dua was just stopped by a mobile health team. “This is the first time my 5-month baby has been vaccinated,” she says shyly. “We live a long way, I didn’t know.”

Now she knows and after the health team explains to her the need to ensure her baby is vaccinated, she’ll be back. But UNICEF and partners must continue to work to ensure they reach everyone, no matter how far they are. Only then will every child be safe from preventable diseases and illness.

Monday, April 23, 2018

No mountain too high: ending polio in Laos

- by Simon Nazer

For 15 years Daeng Xayaseng has been travelling through rugged, undulating countryside by motorbike and by foot to deliver vaccines to children in some of the most remote villages in Laos.

It’s hard work but she is determined: “We have a target of children to reach and we’ll achieve that no matter how long it takes,” she says. “We’ll keep working until we reach every child.”

Today her team visits Nampoung village, 4 hours north of the capital of Laos, to deliver polio vaccines.

In 2015 a vaccine-derived polio virus was contracted by 11 children and adults, killing 2. Remote, poor and often ethnic communities such as those in this Hmong village are among the most vulnerable to the spread of disease and viruses. When dangerous viral outbreaks occur, it’s important health teams come to those most in need of health services.

“Service times depends on the season,” says Daeng. “It’s rice season right now. The villagers are all farmers so everyone will be working in the fields, a long way from their homes. That’s why our services depend on what the community asks; if they say 3pm, we come at that time. If they say night time, we’ll be there.”

The team first sets up in the centre of the village. In the local Hmong language the village chiefs calls on parents to bring their children to be immunized through booming loudspeakers. Soon, parents arrive with small children in slings on their backs, and the larger children following quickly behind. 

“For 15 years I’ve been working on campaigns like this,” she says. “Today we’re here with our outreach team to vaccinate children against polio. We’ll also go house to house to make sure no child misses out on being vaccinated.”

Once the team finishes at the vaccination point, they then go mobile and walk house to house to find children who didn’t come for immunization.

“We don’t want there to be another outbreak of polio so we have to reach everyone,” says Daeng. “In order to do that, immunizing every child in remote communities like this is a priority to ensure everyone is protected.”

UNICEF, with WHO, is supporting the Lao Government to reach nearly half a million children under five with potentially life-saving vaccines. More than 7,200 volunteers and 1,400 health workers like Daeng and her team have been mobilised to deliver the oral polio vaccine as well as other vaccinations such as measles-rubella.

After several hours, the work is complete.

“I’m very happy and proud to do this job,” says Daeng once the team has packed up. “I’m proud to do this job to serve the community and help in any way I can.”

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Improving pedagogical supervision to ensure students’ learning

- Siamphone Buakhamvongsa, Education Specialist, UNICEF Lao PDR

Laos has achieved universal access and gender parity in primary education. Its primary net enrolment rate stands at 98.8%. However, primary completion remains unmet. The primary survival rate (79.6%) is the lowest in South East Asia and the Pacific and shows poor learning outcomes. Adding to that, the repetition rate in early primary grades is high, 11.5% in grade 1, which indicates lack of school readiness of children.
The Government of Lao PDR, with the support of UNICEF, is trying to change this situation. One of the obstacles that prevent children from learning is the low capacity of teachers, and linked to this the fact that they have little supervision and support, having an impact on their teaching practices. Pedagogical supervision, therefore, has been considered the best approach to support primary school teachers’ performance.

Pedagogical advisors of Ta Oi and Saravan Districts assessing current teaching
and learning needs during the capacity building workshop.

Pedagogical advisors of Ta Oi and Saravan Districts
preparing a lesson plan to address the teaching
and learning needs identified in the first part of the workshop.
“Improve pedagogical supervision with increased knowledge and skills of the district pedagogical advisors (PAs) is critical,” explains Takaho Fukami, Chief of Education, UNICEF Lao PDR. That is the reason why the learning oriented capacity building of pedagogical advisors was introduced with UNICEF support in late 2016, shifting away from theory and going towards a much more practical approach, where training is mostly conducted in real schools and where advisors follow actual classroom situations.

“The beauty of this approach is that it is conducted in a real setting. Pedagogical advisors are confronted with real case scenarios and they receive regular feedback from the trainers who are Government officials from the Ministry of Education and Sports at Provincial level,” states Ms. Fukami.

Through this capacity building exercise, PAs have gradually gained necessary knowledge and skills to help teachers to effectively address the teaching and learning needs of individual schools in the entire district.  For many trainees, this has been a life-changing experience. “We have been able to apply what we have learnt into real situations. As a trainee, I have observed others and this has allowed me to gain knowledge too. I highly appreciate this process of learning by doing. The feedback I have received will help me to do better my job, explains Somkhit Mathavong, Head of the Pedagogical Supervision Unit of Ta Oi and Saravan Districts.

With improved knowledge and skills, especially in multi-grade teaching, the PAs have progressively been able to change their supervision methods, using demonstrating, coaching and mentoring techniques. The improved pedagogical supervision has greatly resulted in changing teachers’ teaching practice and has made a difference in the quality of learning.

Mr. Somkhit leading a session on teaching practices 
“I really appreciate this kind of learning as we can immediately apply the knowledge and skills in our supervision practice. Our supervision methods and techniques have been increasingly improved from general observation and thanks to the advice and mentoring from the coaches, who have focused on very practical tips that will allow us to have a positive impact on students’ learning,” said Somkhit Matthavong, Head of Pedagogical Supervision center of Ta Oi District Education.

The results of this approach and training can already be seen. “We have noticed that in our district teachers have changed some of their practices,” explains Mr Matthavong.

Grade one non-Lao speaking students are enjoying their learning.
As some training participants acknowledged, there are still critical challenges to address in terms of teaching and learning at district level, particularly related to how to deal with teaching non-Lao speaking students and multi-grade teaching. UNICEF will continue to provide support to the Government in order to build capacity, knowledge and skills in these areas.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Strong Community Engagement Benefits Young Children’s Learning and Development

- Maliphet Soukhaseum, Education Specialist, UNICEF Lao PDR

Phao, March 2018 - As in many other places in Lao PDR, the Chief of Phao Village in Laongam District (Saravan Province), Mr. Kuang Chleaunsouk, plays a very important role acting a mediator in disputes, fixing problems, providing basic social amenities to the community and creating awareness on key issues, among many other tasks. What makes the job more special here is that he is an active member of the Village Education Development Committee (VEDC) who oversees the activities of the pre-primary school.

In June last year the chief of this village had the opportunity to attend a learning exchange workshop on pre-primary education in Saravan Province organized by the Ministry of Education and Sports with the support of UNICEF. The purpose of this meeting was to provide pre-primary teachers, school principals and members of the VEDC from UNICEF-supported pre-primary schools with opportunities to share their experiences and learn from each other.

Mr. Kuang (first from left) with other two VEDC members
who work together to support pre-primary education
“What made the experience interesting is that I had the opportunity to listen to what others are doing and now I am putting into practice what I learnt, especially when it comes to mobilizing community members to support outdoor activities organized by the pre-primary school,” he explains.

He recognizes that now he feels more comfortable in his role. “Before I didn’t understand why and how the Village Chief could support pre-primary education. Thanks to the learning exchange, I have a better understanding of what is expected from me and have new ideas to work with other members of VEDC and encourage community members to play a role in the classroom management”.

Mr. Kuang has been working hard ever since he came back from the workshop to convince other villagers to participate in the school development meetings and actively support the classroom activities “If we want our children to learn and develop, we need to support them actively,” he states without a doubt.

Locally-made playground equipment helps children to develop their balance, coordination, flexibility and strength

In addition, the village chief and the pre-primary teachers have recently started to organize consultation meetings with the VEDC to boost engagement and motivation and better work together for their children.

Locally-made playground equipment helps
children to develop their balance,
coordination, flexibility and strength
The Early Childhood Education technical staff from the Provincial Education and Sports Service (PESS) and the District Education and Sports Bureau (DESB) have closely worked with the VEDC and the pre-primary teachers in Phao Village providing guidance to ensure appropriate learning for 0 to 5-year old children.  The outcomes of these meetings were reflected in the 2017-2018 School Development Plan which included concrete actions to be carried out within the community. “Once the Plan was approved we called for a meeting with community members to discuss the way forward. It was important for everyone to understand their role. We also provided guidance regarding the type of playground to build and timelines,” Mr. Khuang explains.

Locally-made playground equipment helps
children to develop their balance,
coordination, flexibility and strength
Coordination, closely monitoring and community hard work led to the finalization of the playground within the proposed timelines. This has allowed children to play and continue their learning and development process. “We are very proud to see our children playing in the playground built by all of us,” says with a smile in his face.

VEDCs and communities take a crucial role in supporting quality teaching and learning. Participation and contribution from parents and care-givers, with strong support by VEDCs in children’s learning is bringing significant benefits for children and is helping them to be well for primary school.
UNICEF will continue to support pre-primary schools and VEDCs in key priority provinces, with a focus on improving the quality of pre-primary education in rural and disadvantaged communities with the support of donors and key partners, like the Japan Committee for UNICEF.  

Encouraging Learning through Play to Develop School Readiness

Maliphet Soukhaseum, Education Specialist, UNICEF Lao PDR 

Leuan Thon is a village, mostly populated by Khmu ethnic group, located in Saravan District (Saravan Province) which is about 24 km far from the district town. It took us 30 minutes to get there from Saravan town through a partially paved road. The pre-primary school here that we came to visit was established in 2012 and is one of the 30 schools supported by the Japan Committee for UNICEF.

One of the first things that strikes my mind is the cleanliness of the classroom where children follow attentively the lesson. The efforts to create a learning environment for children immediately caught the attention of the visitor.

Ms. Kaison, a pre-primary teacher who was trained on pre-primary education management with UNICEF support in January 2018, agrees to demonstrate how she applies lessons learnt into practice. “The training has helped me a lot as we were taught how to create a conductive learning environment which is child-centered. We also learnt new methodological approaches to encourage and support learning of pre-primary aged children through play, and they actually love it,” the teacher explains.

20 children (14 girls) sit in a circle on the mating attention to the pre-primary teacher who is giving  instructions for a learning activity. 
Pre-primary education is one of the early childhood education services stipulated in the Education Law. With UNICEF’s support, the Ministry of Education and Sports aims to improve the quality of pre-primary education to ensure that children get ready for school, schools get ready for children, and families understand the importance of supporting their children's learning and holistic development. 

In the class

While I was observing Ms. Kaison’s class, I had the opportunity to interact with some of the pupils and I was pleasantly surprised to see that they were quite talkative. Normally, it takes a while for children to open up, but I started to get questions from them right away. This was the case of a 5-year old girl called Chomsy, who came straight to me and without being told by her teacher asked me “what is your name?”

“She is a fast learner and speaks with confidence. She is always the first child to raise her hand when I ask questions, “ Ms Kaison explains.

And I can clearly see that. We are all sitting in a circle and the teacher has asked for a volunteer to do an exercise with cards. Chomsy has taken the initiative and has quickly grouped the picture cards in pairs correctly as Ms Kaison requested.

Chomsy during a class exercise

“Chomsy is the youngest daughter in her family. She has two brothers and one sister, and all of them study at the primary school which is located in the same compound as the pre-primary school. Chomsy comes to school every day and loves to play with her friends as she learns new things.  The good thing is that not only she learns fast, but she is also a good fellow and always helps other children when she realizes they need help,” explains the teacher with pride. 

Learning while playing

At this pre-primary school children are encouraged to learn while playing. “We have outdoor activities and children sign and dance. They have so much fun,” says Ms. Kaison while explaining that they organize creativity sessions where children are given certain materials to build or create what they want. “I still remember what Chomsy did. I gave them clay and she made some big nails. When I asked her about her work she said that she had made ten nails for their parents to repair their house,”

and outdoor activities
Chomsy activity participates
in the class-room
Active learning through play, which Ms. Kaison learned from the UNICEF-supported teacher training, has been very well received by pre-primary children not only here but elsewhere. Not only it helps them to learn but it also promotes creativity and critical thinking and builds their communication skills.

Investing in early years

For the Ministry of Education and Sports of Lao PDR, pre-primary education is a key strategy to equip young children with school readiness and thus is putting special efforts in strengthening its early childhood education systems and programmes with the support of key partners like the Japan Committee for UNICEF.

School readiness helps children to develop essential skills, knowledge and attitudes that are required to succeed in school and to continue learning later in life. Physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development are all essential ingredients of school readiness.

Acknowledging the importance of investing in early years, UNICEF will continue to support equitable access to and improve quality of pre-primary education in Lao PDR.