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Laos: Remote Health Centres Get Busy Thanks To WFP Food Incentives

Many women in remote parts of northern Laos wouldn't normally go for health checks, even when they are pregnant. But now, thanks to the food rations WFP is offering as part of a Mother and Child Health and Nutrition project, many more are attending the health centres and getting important health care for themselves and their babies.


BAN MOKCHONG -- The district health centre in Ban Mokchong, in remote northern Lao PDR’s Luangnamtha province, is usually a quiet place. But today is unusual. A large group of people from nearby villages have gathered for the first food distributions under WFP's Mother and Child Health and Nutrition (MCHN) project.

Most of the people are women with small children, and some women are pregnant. One of them is La, who we find sitting on a small bench waiting for the distribution to start. La is 23 years old and five months pregnant with her second child. She lives with her husband, 3 year-old child and extended family in Ban Mokchong.

The family has a rice field but they cannot grow enough rice for all nine people in the household for the whole year. Her husband has to work every now and then as a construction worker to earn money which they use to buy rice and vegetables when they can afford it. La tells us they used to have chickens and pigs, but those were killed by the cold weather last winter. Livestock is expensive (one chicken costs US$4-5) and they haven’t been able to replace those they lost.

Rice rations

One of the main reasons La came today was for a health check. In exchange, she received a food ration from WFP. Vilaiphon, one of the two nurses who checked La’s health, is happy to have the project in her area. “Because of this project many pregnant and breastfeeding women have come to see me for a health check-up, even though the project just started,” she says.

La and other women who came today for a check-up received 10kg of rice from WFP. Women will get the same ration each time they go for a check-up, up to four times before and twice after giving birth, and also if they deliver at the health centre.

WFP’s programme encourages women to use health services in an area where visits to health centres used to be a rare occurrence and often only happened when someone was very sick. Many women report they did not think check-ups were necessary during pregnancy. The long distance between many villages and the health centres has also kept women away as families worried about the cost of transport. 

women receiving ready-to-use rations for their children

In addition to the rice rations, women receive ready-to-use food for their children aged 6-23 months. These specialized nutrition products help ensure children get enough calories and all the micronutrients they need every day. To support a sustainable change in nutrition practices, WFP also gives culturally adapted training to women and other caregivers in the family (including men), so they can prepare healthy and nutritious food for their families using locally available food from forests and gardens. 

woman spoonfeeding her baby

Improved health

The WFP project is designed to improve the health and nutritional status of pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under two years. Stunting (being too short for age) is a major problem in Lao PDR, where 50 percent of children in rural areas – and in some regions as many as 60 percent – are stunted. Stunting is not only a problem of low height, but indicates risks for the general health and cognitive development of a child. The first 1000 days of life, starting from conception, are the most critical. Over 30 percent of pregnant and breast-feeding women in Lao PDR are undernourished and thus at higher risk of delivering babies with low birthweight, who are themselves more prone to illness and poor health. Most women give birth at home without proper care.

La also gave birth to her first child at home, without a nurse or a doctor. Now her plans are different: besides attending health check-ups, she will give birth in the health centre, with a trained birth attendant. Next spring, when her new child is six months-old, he or she will receive ready-to-use food from WFP, helping the child to grow and develop properly. La is also eager to learn more about nutrition, so she can prepare the right kind of food for her family. “I want my child to grow up strong and healthy,” she says with a smile.

La returns to her home with her bag of rice, knowing she and her unborn baby are doing fine. The health centre falls quiet again, but the future now looks different - the nurses and the women know they will meet again soon.