Children’s Health in Houaphan

Today I am telling you about the story of two families in rural villages of Houaphan Province I met. I had the opportunity, with UNICEF, to speak with the parents to better understand the situation of malnutrition and stunting two pressing challenges for many children.

In a previous post, I shared with you about mothers and their specific concerns as they go through the stages of pregnancy, birth and raising their child. Now I want to guide this post from the perspective of children.

When I arrived in the village I saw many children, most were running around with other children and playing with nature - collecting rocks, gathering small leaves, and even chasing chickens! The sound of laughter and crying were ever-present in the village.

Hmong family, father with his four children

To better understand the health situation of the children we spoke to Ms. Douapavang who is a Nurse and provides counselling for Family Planning. She mentors young mothers and couples as they have questions and concerns. Family planning, as Ms.Douapavang explains, is about the health of the women and families.

Ms. Douapavang, nurse and family planning counsellor

The nurse explains to us, "malnutrition is a problem for many ethnic groups in this province." She explains that in villages, such as this one in Houaphan Province, there are many young mothers and families with many children. The mothers are as young as 15 and often a family has 5 or 6 children.

Ms. Douapavang, in addition to explaining about health and nutrition, is here to help me translate the Hmong language to Lao. This village has a high number of Hmong ethnic peoples, many who do not understand Lao.

UNICEF gifts books and health crackers for families

On the left is a young boy, who faces both malnutrition and stunting. At 2 years old he is both underweight and small for his age. The nurse explains to us that in this situation, many factors contribute to why the child is facing both these challenges.

"In Houaphanh the prevalence of stunting is high and well above the national average of 36 %" I am told by UNICEF communications staff members. I am also told that, "high prevalence of child malnutrition may be explained by childhood illnesses, poor sanitation, and related practices."

I realise that there are many interrelated challenges that affect the health of the children. In the same way that the health of the mother is connected to the health of the child, the many ways that children go about their daily lives will affect their overall health such as their access to washing their hands and being fed nutritious food.

We continue to walk down the main road to speak with a second family. The father steps out with his son in his arms and welcomes us. I wondered why twice we were greeted by the father of the family. I learned that often the mothers and women of the village are out in the forest and fields to collect items that could be sold in the markets. In both cases, the women's ability to forage provided an additional stream of money that could support the family.

Child with malnutrition

The father is also volunteering as a village leader. He told me that he tries to receive information about health and share this knowledge with the people in his village but even with this information, this is not able to prevent his child from being underweight. The reality is that many of the villages, like the ones I visited with UNICEF, are remote and often the challenges accumulate.

"Tackling the basic and underlying causes of undernutrition in Lao PDR requires addressing stark inequities in health, education, food security and many other areas of life. And that’s precisely what the Lao PDR Government and its international partners, including the EU, are gearing up to do."

I now understand that both health and nutrition are key issues affecting children in Laos. On the other hand, I see many hardworking people trying to improve the situation. There is a partnership between the European Union and UNICEF to improve better child health and nutrition with efforts including:

  • Improving infant and young child feeding practices
  • Micronutrient supplementation programme
  • National immunisation programme

There are also efforts to improve "WASH" or UNICEF'S Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene programme. I was able to understand the challenges, realities and the solutions that are being carried out to give the children a healthier and happy life.

My mom always tells me that "health is the most important thing in the world", I understand that simple, yet, powerful quote much deeper now.

A Mother and her child
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