|© UNICEF Lao PDR/2008/Ingram|
|A young boy receives vitamin A drops in Hin Pan village, Lao PDR, as part of the UNICEF-supported Child Health Days.|
By Simon Ingram
BAAN HIN PAN, Lao People's Democratic Republic, 26 December 2008 – From its lofty mountain perch, the little village of Hin Pan commands a majestic view of jagged peaks and thickly wooded valleys. But this spectacular setting also puts this small ethnic Hmong community of approximately 300 people beyond the reach of health and other basic services.
The nearest tarmac road is 8 km down a rough track, and the clinic is even further away.
Which explains why, on this chilly December morning, the local primary school—a simple wooden structure without windows or electricity—has been pressed into service as a makeshift dispensary, implementing Lao PDR’s latest round of Child Health Days.
The first Child Health Days were held in Lao PDR in June 2007, to ensure distribution of vital Vitamin A and deworming tablets to children under the age of five.
Vital health measures
The classroom’s simple wooden benches are crowded with families. One by one, they are summoned to a table at the front, where, in rapid succession, a local health worker dispenses polio and vitamin A drops to children, followed by a de-worming tablet.
Ms. Jeu, a mother of three, has brought her two youngest children. “The village health volunteer said we should come today,” she says, cradling nine-month-old Koushong. “She said it was important to protect the children against paralysis and worms, and to receive vitamins, so of course I came.”
Support from Japan
Among the group of visitors watching the proceedings is Director General of the Japan Committee on Vaccines for the World’s Children Toshiro Arai. This donor has given UNICEF $100,000 to support Child Health Days.
“Of course it makes us so happy to see how our contribution is making Lao children safe against disease,” says Mr. Arai. “In the 1950s and 60s, foreign aid helped Japan defeat polio. Now our private and corporate donors in Japan are helping to do the same in developing Asian countries like Lao PDR.”
Possibility of recurrence
The last case of polio in the country was recorded in 1996. Four years later, Lao PDR was officially declared polio free. But the chance of the disease recurring can never be ruled out – especially in areas like Ngoi district, where routine immunization rates are low, and where large numbers of tourists visit its spectacular limestone caves and other attractions. This raises the possibility that the polio virus could be inadvertently imported from countries where the disease is still found.
"Child Health Days are a great opportunity to reach vulnerable children, especially in remote areas, and with multiple interventions,” explains the Director of the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) at the Ministry of Health, Dr. Anonh Xeuatvongsa.
‘A great opportunity’
The government’s commitment to this year’s Child Health Days was underlined at a launch ceremony in the capital, Vientiane, attended by senior ministers and other guests. Among them were senior representatives of UNICEF and the World Health Organization, both of which are supporting the campaign.
Judging by early indications, Child Health Days are on track to achieve their target—even matching the achievement of the nationwide measles campaign of 2007, which successfully reached some 96 per cent of children in the target age group.
Sitting at another makeshift dispensary point, near some market stalls on the outskirts of Luang Prabang town, the local EPI manager, Ms. Soukhtavoun, scans the list of children who have already received their polio doses, de-worming tablets and vitamin A supplements.
“We’ve given drops, de-worming tablets and vitamin capsules to 94 out of 114 children in this community,” she says in a satisfied tone. “And its still only 10:30 in the morning.”