Through regular Vitamin A intake, three year-old Dang Phuong Thuy’s ability to resist diseases such as diarrhoea, measles and acute respiratory infections is greatly improved. Credit: UNICEF/Vietnam/2011/Blewett
Binh Thanh Trung commune, Lap Vo district, Dong Thap province, Viet Nam, 21 February 2012 – It is 7 am and Binh Thanh Trung commune’s health centre is buzzing. Today is Micronutrient Day and over 700 children are expected to participate.
Three year-old Dang Phuong Thuy came early with her grandmother Nguyen Thi Kim Huyen. “I want to ensure Thuy grows healthy. I try to give her nutritious food: not only rice and vegetables, but also meat, eggs and fish. But it comes with a price and I have very little to make ends meet”, Huyen says.
A hidden hunger
Malnutrition among children remains common in Viet Nam. One in three children under-5 is stunted, reflecting inadequate health and nutrition services for women and young children. Viet Nam is one of the 24 countries that account for 80 per cent of the world’s stunted children.
And in the Mekong Delta Dong Thap province, anemia is high among pregnant women, heightening their risk of death during childbirth and putting their children at risk of low birth weight and poor future growth.
And vitamin A deficiency can impair a child’s vision and immune system. “If children have insufficient vitamin A, their ability to resist diseases such as diarrhoea, measles and acute respiratory infections are greatly hampered,” said UNICEF Viet Nam Nutrition Specialist Roger Mathisen said. Vitamin A-deficient children face a 23 per cent greater risk of dying from such illnesses.
These vitamins and minerals are needed only in tiny quantities, but their absence can be devastating. Micronutrient deficiencies, however, often have no visible warning signs, causing a ‘hidden hunger’ with far-reaching effects.
UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on Viet Nam's Micronutrient Day.
Micronutrient Days target deficiencies
Each year, two rounds of Micronutrient Days are conducted in Viet Nam, with UNICEF’s support. The rounds include Vitamin A supplementation for all children aged 6 to 36 months at the national level, and for all children up to 59 months old in the most disadvantaged provinces and districts.
“Vitamin A supplementation is a key service as it really boosts the immune system of the child, just like mothers’ milk,” said Mr. Mathisen.
Micronutrient Days also include growth monitoring for children, and iron and folic acid supplementation for pregnant women.
This morning, as part of Binh Thanh Trung’s Micronutrient Day activities, sessions have been organized to teach caregivers how to cook nutritious meals for small children using locally available food. Thuy’s grandmother was one of the volunteer village health workers, recently trained by UNICEF, facilitating this morning’s session.
Vitamin A administration at Binh Thanh village’s health centre in Dong Thap province, Viet Nam. Credit: UNICEF/Vietnam/2011/Blewett
“I am glad I can contribute to improving children’s health in my community through these nutrition education sessions,” said Ms. Nguyen. “We’re fighting against a lot of myths and misconceptions when it comes to providing nutritious meals to children under 5. For instance, there is a belief among mothers that fat or oil can cause diarrhoea, so we specifically encourage them to use it when preparing food. There are other food taboos: Mothers are not used to adding green leaves when cooking baby food, while these are good sources of vitamin A in our community!”
Supporting health infrastructure
To promote long-term child health, UNICEF is supporting improvements to the healthcare system.
UNICEF supports commune health centres in Dong Thap and other provinces, ensuring that basic quality health services are available to local communities. These include not only micronutrient supplementation but also routine antenatal care for pregnant women; immunizations; growth monitoring; health and nutrition education covering issues such as breastfeeding and infant and young child feeding; and HIV and AIDS prevention.
Essential health equipment has been provided to improve the quality of these services.
And UNICEF has supported a series of training sessions for health workers, focusing on antenatal and newborn care; breastfeeding counselling; anaemia prevention and control; prevention of parent-to-child transmission of HIV; and management of childhood illnesses.
Nutrition education sessions in Binh Thanh village, Dong Thap province, Viet Nam. Credit: UNICEF/Vietnam/2011/Blewett