Paige Harrigan, Nutrition Adviser for Save the Children, gets personal about the impact of frontline health workers.
Jealousy? That wasn’t an emotion I was expecting on a regular field visit to rural Bangladesh a few years ago. I was the middle-class American nutritionist in a country I’d grown to love. They were women of very little means in a community where children regularly fell ill and died from malnutrition.
All of us, however, were mothers. And the women around me were having a blast.
We were at a party celebrating a critical milestone –- the 6-month birthday of a baby in the community. It was time for her mother to start introducing the first complementary foods to the breast milk she’d successfully and exclusively fed her baby to that point. And it was a chance to bring other mothers together to share and reinforce the healthiest age-appropriate feeding choices for their baby or toddler.
Brightly-clad women cheerfully fed babies a smooth nutritious porridge they’d made. Moms of older babies swapped ideas on chunkier items to add a variety of nutrients. And mothers of the littlest guests and toddlers alike nursed their children in groups, sharing laughter, questions and lessons learned.
The truth was, I wished I’d had more of that kind of peer support in my Washington, D.C. community after my own daughter’s birth. I had a nice apartment, a nanny, a degree in nutrition. I even had access to wonderful experts in infant nutrition (who I regularly called upon!). But it wasn’t the same as the camaraderie and warm support I watched these mothers share.
Also not the same: the stakes.
Exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months could save the lives of the gurgling and cooing babies around me. It would build their immunity against two very common killers of local children –- diarrhea and pneumonia. Proper complementary feeding would keep the baby of honor and her older peers healthy. In a village where grains are not usually fortified, and tight budgets and common practices don’t naturally lead to diverse, nutritious diets, this conscious effort would ensure growing babies and tots got the nutrition they needed.
That, together with tips on important practices like hand washing and hygiene, would help protect the children for the rest of their lives—not only from potentially deadly disease—but also from permanent developmental damage. That’s the widespread effect of chronic malnutrition on children in poor communities around the world.
But this party wasn’t exactly a traditional celebration. Nor a spontaneous one. It was carefully planned, promoted and led by trusted members of the community. These women, also mothers, had been selected by their peers to receive training, motivation and support from my organization, Save the Children. The program was funded through US foreign assistance for maternal and child health and food security.
These community health volunteers were a wonderful example of the critical role frontline health workers play in improving health and nutrition and saving lives. They had the respect and the ear of mothers and citizens in their village. They were able to introduce lifesaving practices in a way that fit with local culture and custom, while also coaxing these to incorporate new practices in a sustainable way. And they made it fun.
That’s the interesting thing about nutrition. Families need support to learn about, try and maintain scientifically-proven nutrition practices. Frontline health workers, like the volunteers I met at that party –- but also government-supported community health workers, midwives, and others—can bring these practices to places where doctors, clinics and hospitals are rare, prohibitively expensive or entirely absent.
I invite you to learn more about frontline health workers, the role they play in fighting malnutrition, and how downloading a unique new song by OneRepublic benefits the Every Beat Matters campaign to support and expand their ability to save millions of children’s lives.