Friday, January 15, 2016

Meet the Superkids of Laos

Chandavone and her daughter Namkhing
Chandavone (25) Homchanh (20) and Chanhom (28) have one thing in common. They are the mothers of three buoyant 13 month-old children from the small village of Ban Namahee in the south east of Laos. Lively and healthy, the children wrestle in their mother’s arms, mouthing eager pre-speech noises and taking any opportunity they can get to try out legs which only months ago seemed unimportant to their world. In a country where child under-nutrition is a silent emergency – the latest data indicates almost 2 million Lao citizens, mainly women and children, suffer some form of under-nutrition – these three bouncing, healthy children, are in stark relief to the figures. Why? All three have been taking the nutrition supplement Superkid as part of their diets.

So what is Superkid? It is a sachet of powder full of vitamins and minerals that is easily sprinkled over food. The nutrition supplement has been provided and funded through a unique public-private partnership between the Lao Ministry of Health, MMG and UNICEF. MMG are an Australian mining group who operate the largest mine in Laos and employ many of the men in the Savannakhet region. The initiative aims to dramatically reduce aneamia and other nutrition issues affecting young children in three of Laos’s southern provinces.

Chandavone’s daughter, Namkhing, isn’t quite speaking yet but as soon as she was six months old she started receiving Superkid. The micronutrient powder (MNP) supplements a child’s diet with vitamins and minerals helping to reduce rates of anaemia and other micro-nutrient deficiencies.

“Namkhing has had three rounds of Superkid and yesterday I collected my fourth box” says Chandavone. “She’s been getting them every quarter since she was six months old. I usually add it to rice or mix with fruits like papaya or banana and mango.”

Superkid is part of the “1,000 Day Project” which aims at improving the nutritional status of children in Lao PDR and is jointly funded by MMG, EU and the Australian National Committee for UNICEF through UNICEF Lao PDR. It currently targets three provinces – Attapeu, Saravan, Savannakhet.
This intervention is a small but crucial one in fighting the poor nutrition which causes over one-third of child deaths globally. Stunting, a form of chronic malnutrition affecting brain development, affects 44 per cent of Lao children. A dangerously high figure that will have a potentially devastating impact on the future prosperity of Lao society if not tackled urgently now. 

Homchanh and her daughter Khankeo on the steps of her home
Homchanh believes spreading the message is key, “I only have one child but plan on having 3 or 4. I will continue to give my next children the nutrition supplements. I’ve also discussed with other mothers about Superkid because it’s very beneficial for children and I will continue to tell others as well.”

Chanhom offers a vivid comparison, with her two boys illustrating the difference between receiving and not receiving nutrition enhancing supplements.  

Chanhom and Idee practice walking
“I have an older boy of 4 years. He’s just starting kindergarten. But there is a big difference between the eldest and my youngest, Idee. The eldest didn’t get Superkid. He was sick quite a lot, not healthy. But Idee is a strong boy. Healthy and already walking. I want him to be a doctor when he grows up!”

The local nurse and deputy head of the village health centre, Phonpasuth, is just 23 years old and already has three years working in the community. She co-ordinates a wide-range of activities, including distributing Superkid to 7 villages in her area (there are 72 villages covered by the programme in the district). Phonpasuth points out that people of the surrounding villages are still poor enough that food alone is not sufficient nutrition for their children. In addition there are problems of education and isolation. 

“Some of the caregivers are aware of the importance of nutrition for a young child – about 70-80%, those who are educated have an advantage. But the ethnic groups are harder to reach both geographically and for awareness raising. Often they are more involved with the necessity of tending their rice fields than having time to provide a balanced diet for their children or pay attention to the details of adequate child nutrition.”Ms Ngeun Phuangphet Southilavanh (47) oversees all maternal child health activities in the district and emphasises the importance of getting all children “in the green”. Her experience is vast, having worked in Savannakhet province for over 25 years. 

 “The importance of Superkid is it helps reduce malnutrition and prevent anaemia. Before we used to have 7 or 8 serious cases of malnutrition every quarter, then they become moderate, then in the next outreach round it is gone. I notice an improvement with each round when we measure the children. They are getting healthier – in terms of weight for height and height for age.”

Perhaps most telling are the behavioural differences that Ms Southilavanh describes. “The children are more interested in life, more active and fun and being naughty!  These stories are told to me by mothers. That is why Superkid is really good for children’s health. That is why it’s very important to have this intervention.”

Although the number of malnourished children in the programme district of Vilabouly, where Ban Namahhe is situated, has been reduced, they have not reached their goal. Then there is also the question of scaling up the intervention to reach a greater number of children. But the positive impact micro-nutrients are having on children’s health here is very real. 

Chanhom is in no doubt. “I will keep giving my child Superkid. I’m very proud and happy that Superkid is in my village and is making my child healthier. I’m happy with the project and would regret if it is not continued.”

Story and photos by Barry Bracken, Communications Officer, UNICEF Lao PDR.

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