ICT for Malnourishment

18 November 2017 | 08:42

ICT for Malnourishment

Niger, 2013. Photo: EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie

 

Malnourishment, particularly severe malnourishment, increases the risk of death from common childhood diseases such as diarrhea (WHO).

 

In many poor countries malnourishment is chronic and generational. Rates of stunting which measures the weight of the child for its age are extremely high and in many cases so are rates of severe wasting.

 

 

People are poor, resources are scares and living conditions are also difficult, which makes resolving the problem of malnourishment all the more daunting. Yet, it is not all as dismal as it sounds here. There is hope. Research shows that the effects of malnourishment among children can be reversed in the first one thousand days of their life by timely intervention.

 

The interventions start with pregnant women by ensuring they have regular health checks up during pregnancy and take the necessary nutritional supplements of iron and folic acid. Once the child is born, mothers are encouraged to initiate early and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months after which along with breastmilk children need to be provided complementary food.

 

Other than dietary aspects, timely immunization and managing illnesses such as diarrhea, by providing Oral Rehydration Solution, are some of the simplest measures that can go a long way in saving the life of a child.

 

How can these measures be taught to parents? Especially those who are illiterate and live in remote areas?

 

The traditional method of learning about child rearing practices comes from members of the household who themselves may not be aware of what needs to be done. The other source of information is the local health worker, who may be well informed but may not know how to convey the information properly. It is in this context that Information and Communication Technology has brought about change. Communication through radio, television and mobile phones help bridge the gap in information.

 

Visual and audio media, like television and radio, break the barrier of illiteracy and can be widely understood.

 

In India, a country-wide television and radio campaign for immunization was run to generate awareness and need for vaccination. These campaigns were run nationally by the Ministry of Health and Family welfare and UNICEF. They showed the effects of diseases like polio on a child. Some of the campaigns also had famous celebrities urge parents to immunize their child.

 

This is a very powerful medium and its message made a significant impact on people, thus contributing to the increase in immunization.

 

With the spread of mobile phones videos and radio shows, campaigns can be simple programs targeted at specific high risk or linguistic groups. Currently many Non-governmental organizations are creating content in local languages to advice families on ways to tackle the problem of malnourishment. This content may address local needs, tackle local taboos or local environmental conditions, which hinder proper care.  Local dialects also allow content to address sensitive issues without upsetting people.

 

Such contents can also be used as teaching and aid tools for frontline health workers to better communicate their messages. These videos can also be sent on people’s mobile phone.

 

 

The second major contribution of ICT has been to help in tracking the health progress of a child. When a child is born underweight it is of critical importance to ensure she receives constant care and her progress is measured regularly.

 

With the use of automatic reminders health providers can track the progress and ensure she receives the care she needs. Even for healthy children tracking will help in providing reminders to parents about immunization, dietary needs and other information on care.

 

Immunization is a long process and not completing the course of vaccination can reduce the impact of the vaccine.  A program on similar lines is underway in Uganda where mothers are sent SMS’s on their mobile phone to remind them about immunization.

 

Babies that are underweight and at a high risk of malnourishment tend to belong to poor families. Many of these families are labour migrants who tend to move based on the availability of work which makes providing continuous care for these children extremely difficult. These Children may get immediate healthcare for the problem at hand but chronic health problems may get ignored.

 

Even their immunization routine gets disturbed.

 

If a centralized data system is created in which the details of a child, including its weight and immunization status are recorded, then the doctor can provide a better diagnosis and chronic health issues can be better diagnosed.

 

So, ICT is playing an important role in tracking malnutrition at different levels. Chiefly, widespread dissemination of easy and understandable information on health practices can be a powerful solution to ensure children the services required.

 

Certainly, there are many possibilities of using ICT in public health. Innovation can create solutions to problems that have held countries to ransom for far too long.

 

 

Navika Harshe  is Senior Manager, Research and Program Management at Operation ASHA. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Chicago where she received her Masters in Public Policy. She also has a Masters in Economics from the University of Hyderabad. Prior to joining Operation ASHA she had worked with the federal government of India in both the Parliament and the Planning Commission. She is very interested in Health policy and its implementation.

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