Volunteering for Health: An A Plus Result
By Jessie Mawson
Mymensingh, Bangladesh, 29 May 2010: Laili is an ordinary adolescent girl living with her parents and seven siblings in a small house in the village of Satrasia, Mymensingh. Today however, she is contributing in an extraordinary way to the health of children in Bangladesh.
Laili is one of countless volunteers throughout the country who donate their time and, in some cases, their homes to help deliver the National Vitamin A Plus Campaign. “I have volunteered to help with this campaign six times now”, says the bright 15 year old, “the campaign site is just in front of my house, so it’s easy to be involved”.
A lack of vitamin A significantly increases a child’s risk of death from common diseases like measles, diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections. It is also the cause of ‘night blindness’, a debilitating condition that reduces vision in low-light environments. Over time, un-treated night blindness has the potential to permanently rob malnourished people of their sight, affecting not only their quality of life, but their capacity to earn an income and provide for their families.
Bangladeshi children are at an increased risk of night blindness as their diets often lack naturally Vitamin A-rich foods: orange-coloured produce such as carrots, pumpkin, papaya and mangoes, and animal products like meat, liver and eggs. Repeated exposure to infectious diseases further drains young bodies of this important nutrient.
In an effort to mitigate the effects of this deadly deficiency, UNICEF together with the Micronutrient Initiative, the World Health Organisation, and the Government of Bangladesh supports a National Vitamin A Plus Campaign, held twice a year, to deliver supplements (at a cost of about US$ 0.02 per capsule) to children aged 12-59 months. Well attended, the Campaign days are also used as a chance to dispense de-worming tablets and promote messages about good nutrition.
“I like the social aspect of my job here,” grins Laili, who was selected and trained for the position by her local health worker. “I meet lots of people. I talk to the mothers about things like breastfeeding, and I ask about the children and find out how old they are. It’s a festive atmosphere”. A dedicated student with a strong sense of social justice, Laili it working toward a career in health care and hopes that she will one day become a doctor.
In a country where, too often, the development of girls is overlooked, Laili is lucky to have a family that supports her ambitions. Laili’s father, Mohammad Altaf Ali, says he is proud of his daughter’s achievements and recognises that, when it comes to her involvement in the Vitamin A Plus Campaign, there is a double benefit at play: on one hand, Laili gains public health-related work experience and, on the other, she performs a valuable role serving her local community.
Amazingly, vitamin A supplements now reach more than 95 per cent of targeted Bangladeshi children and, over the last 25 years, the prevalence of night blindness in children under five has dropped to 0.04 per cent. Dr. Iyorlumun Uhaa, Deputy UNICEF Representative to Bangladesh, credits the success of the Vitamin A Plus Campaign to people like Laili. “There is a spirit in this country that I have not seen in many others”, he explains, “Communities come together in willing participation and volunteering people just put in their time for nothing. This spirit that exists to mobilize people - and which is quite unique in Bangladesh - is a key factor in the success of the Vitamin A supplementation programme.”
For the mothers of Satrasia village, the success of the Vitamin A Plus Campaign has a tangible result: healthy children. “All of my children are vaccinated”, says 30 year-old Taslima, proudly. “The health worker comes to my house to tell me whenever there is a public health campaign, and I always take my children to the site so they can be given the supplements and vaccinations they need.” Taslima’s youngest daughter, Papri, will soon turn five, so today is the last time she will receive a vitamin A capsule. From here on, good nutrition is the key to maintaining her health and with the help of UNICEF-supported volunteers like Laili, she can look forward to a bright future.