Boosting immunity - Vitamin A campaign reaches over 20 million Bangladeshi children during COVID-19
Remarkable achievement for one of few Vitamin A campaigns held worldwide during the pandemic
Rikta Roy, Health Clinic Manager is overseeing the rollout of the National Vitamin A Plus Campaign in 15 health centres in the south of Dhaka city. The national campaign is targeting over 21 million children in Bangladesh with an immune boosting supplement.
“This year everything is different due to COVID-19. Hundreds of people in this area have lost their jobs due to the economic shutdown in March. They have less money to buy milk, eggs or even vegetables for their children,” explains Rikta, Health Clinic Manager at Smiling Sun Franchise Clinic, Dhaka.
The pandemic created multiple shocks for children and families, devastating livelihoods, disrupting daily life and undermining food security.
Bangladesh has made significant progress on malnutrition in recent years, reducing child stunting from 41 per cent to 31 per cent between 2011 and 2018. COVID-19 threatens to roll back hard won gains, turning a health crisis into a nutrition crisis, with children most at risk.
“I recently saw a young woman with a toddler visibly suffering from undernutrition. I knew that she lost her job as a housemaid in March. It hurt me to tell her to ensure a proper, balanced diet for her baby. How can I ask her to feed fish, meat and eggs to her baby when everything is so expensive?” shares Rikta.
Overcoming challenges to deliver results for children
Each year, the Government of Bangladesh holds two National Vitamin A Campaigns to strengthen children’s immune system and reduce susceptibility to infections. This year, due to COVID-19, the second campaign was postponed in July.
However, with careful planning and additional safety measures ensured, the campaign was successfully held over a two-week period in October 2020, reaching 20.8 million children - 97 per cent of the target.
“The campaign was adapted to ensure safety for health workers, children and parents while achieving remarkable coverage. This is an important win for children in Bangladesh,” said Tomoo Hozumi, UNICEF Representative in Bangladesh.
One major adaptation was to hold the vitamin A campaign over a period of 12 days instead of the usual one-day campaign to avoid large crowds gathering at distribution centres at the same time.
Over 120,000 distribution centres supported the campaign, with health workers and volunteers ensuring infection prevention control practices, including appropriate mask use, physical distancing and handwashing facilities.
UNICEF supported the Government of Bangladesh to conduct the campaign by developing guidelines and communications materials to ensure a safe roll-out in the context of COVID-19 and technical support for real-time monitoring and reporting. In addition, UNICEF provided 360,000 masks for health workers and volunteers.
“The introduction of real-time monitoring and reporting for the National Vitamin A Plus Campaign has been a real game changer. Mobile phones are used to report daily campaign operations enabling us to act quickly if we are off track. If one health centre faces supply shortages, the required supplies are dispatched immediately from the nearest facility,” says Dr. S M Mustafizur Rahman, Line Director, National Nutrition Services, Institute of Public Health Nutrition, Directorate General of Health Services.
Nitu Rani Saha (35) is a mother of three living in the south of Dhaka city. She appreciates the importance of vitamin A for her child’s nutrition and came to the clinic with her daughter Rakhi Saha (3) to ensure she receives a supplement.
“A friend on Facebook told me about this campaign. I also heard about it from the TV and newspapers. I think it's a great initiative,” says Nitu Rani Saha.
“We suffered a lot during the lockdown. Even though we had less food, we tried our best to maintain the diet we always provided to the kids. I hope it hasn’t impacted their nutrition,” she adds.
Mitigating risks for children’s nutrition
Thanks to a coordinated effort led by the Government of Bangladesh, millions of health workers, volunteers and parents were mobilized and engaged to ensure children received an important nutritional boost through the National Vitamin A Plus campaign.
As the pandemic continues to impact lives, livelihoods and food security throughout Bangladesh, ensuring continued access to essential nutrition services remains critical to mitigate the risks for children.
“The campaign is an important achievement for children but our work is far from over. We must redouble our efforts to screen, monitor and treat children for severe malnutrition which can have lifelong consequences - impacting children’s growth, development and even survival,” said Piyali Mustaphi, Chief of Nutrition Section, UNICEF Bangladesh.
UNICEF is committed to support the Government of Bangladesh to maintain and strengthen essential health and nutrition services for every child.