Helen Keller International at the Micronutrient Forum

Daily Dispatch: Helen Keller International at the Micronutrient Forum

The Helen Keller International team is excited to play an active role in the 2014 Micronutrient Forum, held in Ethiopia this year. This annual gathering unites Helen Keller International with other leaders and innovators across the field of nutrition to share ideas and insights surrounding reducing malnutrition in some of the world’s most vulnerable places.  See below for daily updates and highlights from the conference.

Day Five: The 2014 Micronutrient Forum had a triumphant finish for Helen Keller International.  HKI’s Jessica Blankenship presented during the forum’s final session on Advancing Vitamin A Supplementation (VAS) of Children, which was well-attended by many of our well-respected peers and partners from the VAS community. Jessica discussed HKI’s innovative use of mobile phones in the 13 countries where we work in Sub-Saharan Africa by sharing the HKI model for Mobile Data Collection.  HKI leverages mobile phones to not only collect vital data on how well the VAS program is performing, but also to send text messages to moms, reminding them to bring their children to receive crucial vitamin A supplements.  This technology is also utilized to improve our VAS program using dynamic, real time data.

Following Jessica’s presentation, Dr. Codé Thiaw HKI-Senegal Office explained how we worked with the country’s government to test a strategy to ensure that children receive crucial vitamin A supplements as soon as they turn six months of age and are thus most likely to be saved by the intervention.  The combination of text message reminders, new child health cards adding Vitamin A Supplementation to the immunization schedule, and posters and radio spots increased coverage of children at this critical age dramatically in three different areas of the country.

During the session’s Q&A period, a member of the audience from Nigeria expressed a heartfelt thanks to HKI for introducing this innovative mobile technology approach in the country and for inspiring the Ministry of Health to apply this approach to other programs to improve reach and quality.  Nita Dalmiya from UNICEF Headquarters, also on the panel, then responded that this was an excellent example of how the key Vitamin A Supplementation partners, UNICEF, Micronutrient Initiative, HKI and the World Health Organization can learn from and replicate each other’s’ best practices, which was the perfect way to close this exciting gathering of leaders in the nutrition field.

Day Four: HKI's Jessica Blankenship presented at a plenary session on how to effectively design and scale up micronutrient programs, using HKI's frica-wide Vitamin A Supplementation program as a successful case study. Through the program, HKI has been using inexpensive post-event surveys to collect accurate information about how many at-risk children were reached. The data collected helps identify problems and suggest ways campaigns can be leveraged to reach more children.  In Cameroon, the surveys first revealed the need to promote the program among families and that more health staff were needed to deliver the supplements.  In a later phase of the project, HKI added geographic positioning system data and discovered the reason one neighborhood was being routinely skipped was because health workers had to forge through a garbage dump to reach it, and they refused, leaving the children unprotected.  Once HKI staff understood the problem, they found a way around the obstacle; and coverage jumped from about 53% to 80%.

Day Three: The morning session of Day 3 highlighted how the body uses iron and what that means for programs that deliver iron supplements (pills) or fortify staple foods with iron. The same session also revealed how crucial it is for a pregnant woman to get enough iron  to protect her unborn child. Iron deficiency has many negative impacts on the child’s health, ability to learn, and even his temperament. Iron supplementation of young children is very tricky; it is easy to give too little or too much.  

Later in the morning an equally absorbing presentation was given on tools for assessing dietary intake, also something surprisingly difficult to do well, so that nutrition programs can fill the most important gaps. A tool under development for some time, “Optifoods,” may be released soon and could help HKI’s Homestead Food Production programs choose the best crops and animal foods to produce and consume.

Fama Kondo, the Vitamin A Supplementation Coordinator at HKI Mali, gave a wonderful presentation on strengthening program support in low income regions of rural Mali as part of a session entitled “Defining obligations and taking responsibility for stakeholder actions”. Fama spoke about advocacy workshops that HKI’s vitamin A program organized in seven districts prior to a recent vitamin A supplementation campaign. Through the workshops, influential people such as government officials, community and religious leaders, and local radio staff learned about vitamin A and the importance of supplementation campaigns. The result was heightened awareness and a commitment to support the campaign through a variety of ways including community mobilization, meals for the distributors during their training, and contributions to covering the cost of transportation and other logistics. Those present appreciated the content and clarity of Fama's insightful presentation.

Day Three is capped off by a special presentation by HKI's Vice President of Nutrition Rolf Klemm about multi-sectoral approaches to reducing anemia.  The presentation was part of a symposium sponsored by the SPRING Project entitled “Using a multi-sectoral approach to reduce maternal and child anemia: best practices and lessons learned."  

Day Two: The second dayof the conference reunited HKI with Shawn Baker, who served as head of HKI’s Africa programs for nearly two decades. Shawn discussed a variety of ways to make complex nutrition strategies most effective by identifying simple, clear and actionable steps that each program stakeholder can take. At another session on program experiences improving women’s nutrition, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health presented research that clearly demonstrates how multi-vitamins and supplements that contain many micronutrients can protect the health of women and their newborns better than iron-folic acid alone, promoting the switch to delivering multi-nutrient supplements.

The session also included 10 elements to sustainable program success from UNICEF India, including: a call for creative strategies to reach those often left behind by current programs, forging new of partnerships with academic and training institutions, and leveraging evidence to build political momentum and commitment among government partners. These elements are the key foundation to creating lasting change through sustainable, effective nutrition and Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD) programs. The Helen Keller International team presented a variety of tools and posters that outline how our programs contribute to the fight against malnutrition worldwide.

Day One: One session sponsored by the Micronutrient Initiative and World Health Organization on the opening day of the conference outlined ten principles for successful behavior change that can be utilized in nutrition programs. Targeting early adopters, keeping messages lively and constant promotion of new behaviors were among these principles. An exciting case study was shared by the Country Director for Micronutrient Initiative in Nepal, who described how health systems in the country failed to provide pregnant women with iron-folic acid supplements and counseling for many years. To address this lapse in the system, approximately 10,000 Female Community Health Volunteers delivered these supplements and nutrition education to pregnant women, resulting in a drastic reduction in instances of anemia across Nepal. 

Photos from the Micronutrient Forum