Dealing with adolescent anaemia – a success story from Valsad district, Gujarat
By Radhika Srivastava
A survey in 2000 among adolescent girls in Gujarat's Vadodara district showed that about 75 per cent of the girls were anaemic with haemoglobin levels below 12. UNICEF then initiated a special project to reduce anaemia among girls in Vadodara. Under the project, Iron tablets were given to 64,544 girls across 410 schools. After 18 months, an assessment showed that anaemia prevalence had reduced to 53 per cent.
Convinced of its success, the project was extended to all the secondary and higher secondary schools in all 25 districts of the state. Two teachers from every school attended the UNICEF workshops to learn about anaemia and the programme. Currently, 1,014,598 girls in 7,315 schools are getting iron tablets every week.
A year ago 14-year-old Mamta Kumari, a student in Gujarat’s Valsad district, started doing badly in her school exams. Otherwise a good student, she just could not concentrate. “I would suffer from near-constant headaches and forever felt exhausted,” she said.
Her daily-wage worker parents could not help much either. They told her these were the pangs of growing up. Nobody knew that she was severely anaemic. Only after she started taking iron tablets in school that her health improved rapidly. It was only then that her family realised her haemoglobin level was dangerously low.
Today, Mamta, a standard 10 student of Shah GMD Sarvajanik High School in Motaponda village in district Valsad of Gujarat, is a different girl. Her face glows and she breaks into a run whenever she wants to. “Last year, I fainted during a mass PT drill. My teachers were so shocked that they exempted me from any outdoor activity. But now, I can run as fast as anyone else,” she said. Her teacher said Mamta’s grades had begun to improve and she was back among the top ten students in her class.
Mamta is among thousands of girls in Gujarat who have benefited from a joint initiative between UNICEF and the government of Gujarat to tackle adolescent anaemia among girls in the state. More than a million girls have been covered under this programme in which they get one iron tablet in school every week. The strategy is to get the girls to swallow the tablet in the classrooms in the presence of their teachers so that not a single dose is missed or forgotten.
Mamta’s school principal Ratan Ben K Patel, who has been with the school for more than 15 years, said, “We knew our girls were anaemic. During summers, many would faint. And most would appear lethargic. They would do poorly in school and then some of them would drop out of school.” But she says she can see the difference now. “Girls have become more active. They look healthy and are happier,” she said.
While some girls feel physically stronger after taking the iron pills, others speak of greater “mental benefit”. Sharda Ben Pravin Bhai Patel, a student of Vinay Mandir, a residential school for tribal girls in Motaponda, said, “I have been taking the tablet for the past couple of years and my memory has greatly improved. My performance in school has improved.”
Sharda, in-charge of distributing the tablets to other girls in her hostel said the new girls sometimes hesitated. But she and the other senior girls would tell them about how the tablets had improved their lives. “After just a couple of months, the younger girls realised the benefits as they felt better,” she said.
Although initially the iron tablets were viewed with scepticism by some parents, doubts melted with teachers telling parents about its benefits. Patel said, “Some parents felt that if their girl took the tablet it would mean she was not well looked after at home. But I told them about anaemia and how the vegetarian diet prevalent in the area had little iron content.”
Today not only has the programme been fully accepted, many mothers have started taking iron tablets themselves. And everybody feels better and healthier.