Sunday, March 7, 2010

VHW: Our Extra Eyes and Ears

This week I had the privilege of witnessing firsthand one of TTL's most promising initiatives: the Village Health Worker Program.

Since November 2008, our outreach workers have been meeting with local men and women in villages throughout the region in order to train them on important aspects of malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and breastfeeding options for HIV-positive mothers.

Dozens of matriarchal and patriarchal individuals have been driven to attend these meetings by a deep-seated desire to better their communities and protect their children from the ravages of food shortage and disease.

Our support and their commitment have translated into a new network of basic health workers who can call TTL with referrals whenever they see a sick baby in their remote communities -- essentially multiplying the eyes and ears of our outreach network.

The village health workers routinely use their training to check babies for malnutrition using weight scales, height length boards and MUAC strips to measure the babies' "middle upper-arm circumference."

They have also been trained to use World Health Organization Z-scores, which allow them to use a baby's weight and height to get an accurate measure of malnutrition.

I saw all of this in action when I accompanied two of our outreach workers and TTLF leaders Sheila Block and Maura Costello on a site visit to one of the villages participating in the program. Site visits are our way of seeing how things are going.

In an empty stone building with a corrugated metal roof at the center of a small village of rondavals, a dominate and matriarchal village health worker rallied her village together with the help of a group of other dedicated women.

A gathering of children sang to us at the urging of one of our outreach workers, then filed into the building, which was owned by the village chief, to have their measurements taken. Scores of women carried in younger children, many of whom cried torrents and screamed at the slightest clue that they would be weighed on a scale.

Regardless of the protests from the younger ones, we managed to weigh a total of 40 babies and toddlers. Of those, we found three in need of our help. One was already a client receiving our help, another was already receiving food from the WFP, and another one was wasting away with no source of help at all.

The third baby is a new client of TTL, and that reality is one that makes every last measurement made during that long day in the hot room worth it.

If it weren't for the Village Health Worker Program, these sorts of communal check-ups probably wouldn't be occurring.

And even though our outreach teams are already out in the villages and getting referrals from rural clinics and village chiefs, we may never have found out about this little baby if the village health workers hadn't helped organize this meeting.

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