Keeping children and families healthy in the communities Cambodian Children’s Fund serves is supported by long-term partnerships with organisations like Vitamin Angels

Standing with her kindergarten class, little Sophy waits patiently in line for her turn.

She doesn’t know it but Sophy, aged three and looking younger in her smart CCF uniform, is about to receive a potentially life-saving vitamin.

Vitamin A is essential for long-term health but many children in developing countries like Cambodia can struggle to get enough into their bodies. A deficiency in vitamin A in a child’s early stages of development can cause blindness, diseases and, in severe cases, even death.

Thanks to a partnership with Vitamin Angels, a global public health organisation working to end malnutrition worldwide, Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF) has a program of vitamin A supplementation in place.

Children like Sophy receive twice yearly doses to keep their vital vitamin A levels up and ensure that they continue to grow healthy and strong.

“Vitamin A is the main cost effective intervention in the 0-5 age group in order to prevent death and blindness,” said Dr Nikhil Harikrishnan, Program Officer, Asia for Vitamin Angels, who visited CCF recently to see the joint program in action firsthand.

Two doses of vitamin A per year can combat the devastating effects of vitamin A deficiency, strengthening young immune systems to fight off life-threatening illnesses.

“It’s vitamin A deficiency which leads to the defences being so weak,” said Dr Harikrishnan.

“So a child without vitamin A, outwardly might seem normal but the moment he or she gets pneumonia or diarrhea, which a well-nourished child would be able to fight back against, this child has no defences at all.”

In 2008, it was revealed that micronutrient malnutrition – diseases caused by a dietary deficiency of vitamins or minerals – in Cambodia was among the worst in Southeast Asia. In developed countries, children would adequate vitamin A supplies from food but in impoverished communities like the ones where CCF works, where poor nutrition is prevalent, this is not always possible.

Which is why initiatives like the one with Vitamin Angels are vital for CCF, with the partnership now in its 10th year.

A simple prevention program like giving a twice yearly dose to children up to the age of five can prevent chronic problems happening later. Vitamin A deficiency can also cause stunting in children.

CCF also runs a deworming program for students in partnership with Vitamin Angels.

Vitamin Angels supplies all the supplements, while CCF is responsible for the distribution.

During his visit to CCF, Dr Harikrishnan saw a live vitamin A and deworming distribution for up to 30 nursery and kindergarten kids.

“It was fantastic to see our programs working on the ground,” said Dr Harikrishnan. “I mean, I have to compliment the staff at CCF as it was so well organised. It was just so heartening for me to see. They are just so dedicated.”

But it’s not just children that the partnership benefits.

CCF also has a prenatal multivitamin program for pregnant women in the community to ensure mum and the growing baby in the womb are healthy. Research has shown that the ‘critical window’ for a baby is the first 1,000 days, from conception up to two years.

“Once a baby is born, without having received adequate micro nutrient supplementation, he or she is already one step behind. Other babies have a head start, so they are always trying to play catch up,” explained Dr Harikrishnan, who trained as a medical doctor but did a Master’s in Public Health before joining Vitamin Angels in 2015.

It can be a challenge to persuade mothers to keep taking the supplements when the benefits are not always outwardly visible. But Dr Harikrishnan said he was impressed by the commitment of mums he met in CCF’s community.

“I spoke to six mothers today and I was pleasantly surprised. All of them seemed really enthusiastic and one mother said specifically that she keeps the bottle in a place where she sees it, that it’s visible, as she doesn’t want to take a chance on missing a dose even for a single day. I thought that was so great, they seemed really invested and they really believed in the benefits of the prenatal multivitamin. I think the staff at CCF have done an amazing job.”

Vitamin Angel was founded in 1994 by Howard Schiffer, who drew on his experience as a midwife and success in the natural products industry. The organisation now works in 74 countries, reaching millions of women and children, and saving lives.

It works with 1,600 plus field partners around the world but, as of the end of 2019, CCF was the only one in Cambodia.

Dr Harikrishnan said the success of the CCF partnership was evident during his visit.

“I think the staff are invested, that’s the key. They are invested in the health and nutrition of these kids. From an outsider’s perspective, if the staff of an organisation are so invested, I think that bodes very well.”

Find out more: https://www.vitaminangels.org/

Kate Ginn/CCF

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