Cyclone Pam: a helping hand for an 8-month-old survivor

By Rebecca Olul, Monitoring & Evaluation Officer, UNICEF Vanuatu

I met Nichola for the first time when a nurse measured the circumference of his arm at Pango Community Centre in Port Vila, Vanuatu. I was relieved to see that the colour of the special measuring tape was green, meaning that Nichola wasn’t dangerously underweight.

Just before that, his mother Melissa, age 21, had received counseling on infant and young child feeding practices through UNICEF’s partner, Save the Children Australia. Melissa is one of more than 11,000 mothers who have received micro-nutrient powder and nutrition advice for their very young babies in Vanuatu.

The distribution of nutrition supplements is a new intervention in Vanuatu that began after Cyclone Pam hit the country in March 2015. Curious to see how these supplements would be received in the community, I went back to meet Melissa at her home a month later.

Melissa welcomed us outside her small house made from corrugated iron sheets, no further than 50m from the beach. I immediately wondered how she, her husband and Nichola had survived the cyclone in this fragile home. It was reassuring to learn that they took refuge in a relative’s house during the cyclone.

Listening to Melissa talking, I quickly realized that Nichola was already a strong and much-loved baby. His risky journey started one month before he was born, when his mother travelled for almost a week in perilous conditions on a boat to reach Port Vila. Melissa was determined to reach a safe and equipped hospital to give birth – she lost twins last year and was focused on giving Nichola the best start to life.

Thanks to his family’s determination Nichola made it safely into the world but, when he was only two months old, Category 5 Cyclone Pam devastated the country. Nichola and his family survived the storm but he got very sick a few weeks after the cyclone.

Worried about his fever, Melissa again took him to the hospital – it turned out the rainwater they had been collecting and giving to Nichola was unsafe. Melissa and her husband didn’t know that Nichola didn’t need water at that young age – they also didn’t know how to make the rainwater safe to drink through boiling.

After an emergency, new mothers like Melissa often need support to care for their babies in the most difficult of circumstances. Mothers learn about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of their baby’s life, and how to complement breastfeeding with safe solids after the baby reaches seven months.

Nichola and Rebecca
© UNICEF Pacific Islands/2015/Nichola with Rebecca Olul, Monitoring & Evaluation Officer, UNICEF Vanuatu

In the first six months after the cyclone, UNICEF and partners have reached nearly 9,000 mothers with information and counselling on safe feeding practices. As part of the session, mothers are also provided with micro-nutrient powders for their babies over six months who are eating semi-solid food, to help them grow and develop during a time when their diets might be compromised due to destruction of food sources and the stress their mothers are under.

The micro-nutrients come in a powder form, which is simply sprinkled on top of the children’s normal food, avoiding the need for stressful pills or injections.

Melissa shyly tells us that, “At first I was afraid to give Nicola the powder in his food but then when I gave it to him I realised it was good for him. It helped his body to be stronger. Then I continued to give it.”

Once mothers understand the benefits of the supplement it becomes a much-valued tool for their children’s development. After counselling and orientation has been provided, supplements are distributed through grassroots Village Health Workers to children aged 6 to 23 months.

Nichola gurgles and smiles as the adults talk around him. He gazes at my face in wonderment and tries tugging my hair. Like every child of his age he tries to put a strand into his mouth to suck on to identify what it is, all signs of a healthy and inquisitive baby who, with a little help, is developing as he should, despite the most challenging of times.

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