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Putting children first: Nepal’s national vitamin A campaign proceeds despite unrest

© UNICEF Nepal/2006/Joshi
Despite the escalating political turmoil that has hit Nepal in recent weeks, families lined up outside health clinics in Kathmandu for their children to receive life-saving vitamin A.
By Rupa Joshi and Sabine Dolan

KATHMANDU, Nepal, 19 April 2006 – Despite the escalating political turmoil that has hit Nepal in recent weeks, a national distribution of vitamin A capsules and de-worming tablets started today. About 3.3 million Nepalese children, ranging in age from six months to five years, are expected to receive vitamin A capsules as part of the two-day nationwide campaign to protect children’s health by boosting their immune systems.

Families turned out in hordes for the start of the drive, braving the current bouts of political agitation as well as bad weather. In Kathmandu, parents clutched their babies and umbrellas as they gathered outside health clinics for the biannual vitamin A distribution.

Lines reach into the street

“We never imagined so many children would turn up on the first day itself,” said Gautam Raj Bajracharya, who was helping administer the vitamin supplements at the bustling clinic in Mitra Park, Kathmandu. “It's not even 11 o'clock and we have already given the drops to about 250 children, which is about one-fifth of the total number of children we expect.”

Outside the clinic, the line of children and their guardians snaked all the way out into the street.

In the line stood Sita Nepal, who had come to Kathmandu from the neighbouring district of Sindhupalchowk. She explained how important it is for her to have her three-year-old daughter receive the vitamin A capsules and de-worming tablets. “I know the vitamin will protect her from all kinds of diseases and make her healthy,” she said, covering the girl's head with her shawl.

© UNICEF Nepal/2006/Joshi
Health workers at Mitra Park health clinic dispense vitamin A supplements, which annually protect over 12,000 Nepali children from dying of various illnesses, and prevent blindness for another 2,000.
On the eve of a major political rally and associated curfew planned for Thursday, parents like Ms. Nepal ventured outside their homes today, quickly filling up the clinics. Many have been restricted to their houses during the general strike and daytime curfews of the past two weeks.

Support from both sides

The ongoing violence between the government and protesters in Nepal prompted UNICEF and its partners to urge that both sides designate distribution centres as ‘safe spaces’. The request was quickly accepted by the parties, who released press statements reiterating their support for vitamin A distribution.
In one incident, a UNICEF monitoring mission was waved through a large crowd of protestors blocking a road. They let the vehicle pass and cheered as it drove by. Meanwhile, Ram Krishna Khatiwada, 27, a member of the Armed Police Force, stood guard by the gate of the Mitra Park health clinic. “This is a good thing, and I feel good being here,” he said, watching the children file past.

“The violence in the last few days has been very frightening for many children and their families,” said UNICEF’s Representative in Nepal, Dr. Suomi Sakai, who monitored the distribution in Kathmandu.

“It would be natural that parents be concerned about the possibility of exposing their youngest children to risk by taking them outside the house,” she continued. “At the same time, we also know that half of the children in Nepal are already malnourished and many do not have a sufficient store of vitamin A in their bodies to ward off disease and help prevent blindness.”

© UNICEF Nepal/2006/Joshi
Frontline health workers like Maiya Sapkota, known as Female Community Health Volunteers, help administer vitamin A. There are about 48,000 women volunteers across Nepal.
Distribution covers 75 districts

The success of the nationwide campaign owes a lot to the veteran frontline health workers known as Female Community Health Volunteers. Numbering about 48,000 across the country – mainly in rural areas – these volunteers look after the health and well-being of the children and women in their localities. 

“I have been doing this since 1988,” says Radha Budathoki, a volunteer in the village of Gorkana. “Earlier, we had to go from house to house urging people to come to the centres. Nowadays, our life has become easy, thanks to the announcements on radio and television. There is not a family that does not own a radio, and thus there is practically no one who will not have heard about this distribution.”

The distribution of the vitamin A capsules and de-worming tablets covers all of Nepal’s 75 districts, from the Himalayan mountains to the hot plains of the Terai.

“This capsule has been responsible for protecting over 12,000 Nepali children from dying every year due to various illnesses, and protecting another 2,000 children from going blind,” said Dr. Sakai, holding a little red capsule between her fingers. “And all of this has been possible because of the support we get from all our partners and the mobilization at the grassroots.”




20 April 2006:
UNICEF Correspondent Sabine Dolan reports on the nationwide vitamin A campaign in Nepal.

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19 April 2006:
UNICEF Correspondent Sabine Dolan talks to Nepal Representative Suomi Sakai about the first day of the national vitamin A campaign amidst the wave of turmoil that has hit the Himalayan kingdom.
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