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A first-hand look at child malnutrition in Laos

With a population of under 7 million people, much of Laos is sparsely populated, and visiting our project locations in the remote north east involved a local flight to the provincial capital, followed by a 3-hour drive to the northeast border.

The roads vary in quality, but even on the main highway, you can’t drive more than 40 – 50km/hr. It takes time to get to the communities as ChildFund works in the most remote, marginalised and in-need populations.

I’m here to review our nutrition programing in the province.

Despite suffering incredibly high levels of stunting (a chronic form of malnutrition that affects both physical and mental development), Laos possesses very few nutrition experts – in fact, there are no tertiary level courses for people to even be trained – that’s why I have been called in to advise on the current strategy.

This project works in two districts about 50km apart, and covers over 20 villages.

We are focusing on rural and remote areas where access to services and health education is particularly challenging. In these areas, over half of the children are stunted; a product of poverty, lack of health and nutrition knowledge, and culturally ingrained food habits. A number of local food taboos mean that women often eat only sticky rice in late pregnancy and early post-partum.

It’s a diet that starts depriving the developing foetus from necessary vitamins and minerals for growth even before birth. In some cases, mothers feed masticated sticky rice to newborns, in the tragic misbelief that it is better than breastmilk.

We are combating these habits by training local people to become health volunteers. We teach them how to monitor children’s growth, and to lead nutrition education sessions for mothers and children.

ChildFund is providing practical solutions to end child hunger is Laos

On this trip, I was fortunate to join a growth monitoring event where our volunteers were able to practise their new skills after being trained in the classroom, just days before.

Our health volunteers, project staff and teaching assistants from the district health office did a great job directing the stream of families through different stations where children were weighed, measured and had their health checked.

Thanks to generous supporters, we were able to supply all the equipment required for the day including standing measuring boards and scales, hanging basket scales for babies, health record books for each mother to keep, and educational materials and posters.

At the end of the weighing, volunteers also provided nutrition counselling and education to mothers of malnourished children.

I took a moment to watch a volunteer instruct on the local food pyramid featuring insects and small fish for calcium, and frogs, wild rodents and buffalo meat as sources of protein.

While these may not sound appealing to an Australian diet, they are affordable and locally adapted examples of nutritious food that will help children grow strong and healthy.

Healthy children are happier children, able to go to school, play with their friends and achieve their full potential in life!

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