Ever since coming to serve in this remote mountainous area largely populated by a minority people group in Southeast Asia I have been struck by how common childhood malnutrition is here. As a paediatrician working in the local county hospital, I see many of the worst cases: children who are emaciated, sick and dying.
‘Just the tip of the iceberg’
Yet these are just the tip of the iceberg. Many more children have signs of chronic malnutrition: dry dull hair, stunted growth and development. These children and their condition weigh heavily on my heart, and I began to pray for ways that our team could do something to help. These are conditions I rarely see in my practice in my home country, so I need to read up and learn about them. I even made this into a personal learning project to earn professional development points.
The more I read about childhood malnutrition, the more I appreciate the complex interaction between the biomedical, socioeconomic and cultural factors that lead to malnutrition in resource-limited settings such as the area where I serve. For example, one might expect that things would improve with economic development. In fact, with better roads and a bit more disposable income, people here have easier access to supermarkets with their row after row of highly processed items such as cup noodles, sugary drinks, and salty snacks. These are often seen as superior to their traditional wholesome, albeit limited, fare. So the malnutrition we see is often deficiency of vitamins and trace elements. Health education is needed, but that is only part of the solution. There is no quick fix or one-size-fits-all solution.
Health education is needed, but that is only part of the solution.
‘No quick fix solution’
Various general solutions have been suggested by public health personnel and NGOs but these require a big team, while we are just two units, and our resources are limited. There is no way we can embark on any large project. We need something manageable that is sustainable and empowering for local people. After much praying, waiting, and thinking, we came up with a breakfast project for a village kindergarten that we have been working with. The idea is to support families with kids enrolled in the kindergarten with 15 locally sourced chickens each. In return, each family supplies 40 eggs to the kindergarten each month for the students. Our hope is that the children will have at least an egg as breakfast on school days. We also coupled this with health promotion efforts for the children and their parents. We are thankful that the villagers and families all welcome the project, and have been diligently raising the chickens and supplying the eggs.
We need something manageable that is sustainable and empowering for local people.
‘How far will they go among so many?’
In a way, I feel like the boy who brought his five small barley loaves and two small fish to Jesus (John 6: 5-13). Andrew, one of the disciples, asked the logical question: ‘but how far will they go among so many?’ Yet, when Jesus took the loaves and fish, gave thanks and distributed them, five thousand people were fed, with twelve baskets of leftovers. The problem of childhood malnutrition is so daunting; will this breakfast project make a difference? I appreciate the simple faith and obedience of the boy, entrusting what he had to Jesus and letting him do the rest. It is also my prayer that this little breakfast project will be used by him to bless these precious children and their families physically and spiritually so that they will grow to their full potential.
Paediatrician in East Asia