Borgen Magazine: Combatting COVID-19 Challenges for Women and Children in Africa

DENVER, Colorado — In 2019, over 80% of the mortality rate of pregnant women and children younger than 5 were centralized in sub-Saharan Africa. The inadequacies in the African health systems could lead to a 50% increase in deaths among pregnant women and young children by 2030. COVID-19 in Africa has further set back the progress achieved for women and children, leaving them even more vulnerable to health disparities and poverty. However, hope remains for these jeopardized groups thanks to Vitamin Angels, an organization founded by Howard Schiffer in 1994 that works to improve health services for women and children in Africa who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in Africa.

The Approach

Rebecca Nerima, the Vitamin Angels program manager in Uganda, explains that pregnant women and children under 5 are “nutritionally vulnerable, meaning they are experiencing rapid physical growth and cognitive development,” which necessitates robust nutrient needs.

She explains Vitamin Angels aims to interrupt the cyclical nature of undernutrition to, “promote health and economic equity across the lifespan.” Adequately nutritionally nourished pregnant women and children enables a greater chance for growth, cognitive development and achievement. Therefore, sufficient nutrition enables a greater chance for economic security and decreased risk of poverty.

Nerima attributes the organization’s evidence-based nutrition intervention strategy for communities facing health security barriers as the source for achieving health developments. Vitamin Angels partners with non-profit organizations to provide adequate health and nutrition services to vulnerable and often marginalized groups in medically-deficient communities. The prompt and strategic measures create sustainable, nutritionally-sufficient futures for mothers, women, infants and children all over the world.

“Over time, we have built the capacity of our program partners who are employing a multi-sectoral approach for improved and increased health care services to marginalized communities in a more sustainable way,” says Nerima. Vitamin Angels also ensures the greatest impact on at-risk communities by determining primary needs, certifying non-profits and authorizing distributions of vitamins or other products. In collaboration with non-profits, they provide nutritional services and support to communities, while analyzing efforts to make advantageous alterations.

COVID-19 Response in Africa

Regarding health services in Uganda, Nerima states, “Uganda rotates around 8-10% funding to health care and majorly affects health services delivery to vulnerable women and children.” Approximately, 49% of pregnant women are anemic, 32% of women of reproductive age are anemic and 9% of children under 5 have Vitamin A deficiency. Additionally, the infant mortality rate is noticeably high with 43.4 deaths per 1,000 live births. “Vitamin A coverage is around 62%. A woman attending the 4th ANC visit is low. Low women are not taking all prescribed doses; there is a problem nutrition health education,” adds Nerima.

The program partner of Vitamin Angels in Uganda, OurGanda, remains committed to saving lives and improving health for vulnerable families and children through their “wellness club” approach. The OurGanda medical team educates, attends to and regulates “wellness club” members in hope of Ugandans becoming accountable for their health.

Since 2018, OurGanda has gained 3,000 wellness club members, distributed 750 children’s health kits and admitted vitamins to 375 pregnant women.

In South Africa, the regulations from COVID-19 heightened food and nutrition insecurity for children and pregnant women. Vitamin Angels’ South African Program Manager, Pumla Dhamini, has lobbied for the urgency of legislators to ensure access to proper nutrition for pregnant women and vulnerable families. Dhamini also strengthened technological COVID-19 communication to increase education on malnutrition and provide food vouchers.

Vitamin Angels partnered with WE, which has responded to COVID-19 impacts in Kenya through increased community outreach and awareness strategies. WE reached more than 150,000 individuals by team members educating locals and allocating crucial services. The organization’s agriculture program persists in improving access to nutritional food security. WE also continues to distribute Vitamin Angels’ health procedures which help women and children evade sickness.

Overcoming COVID-19 Barriers and Long-Term Objectives

COVID-19 in Africa imposed hurdles on Vitamin Angels’ programs, including budget cuts, cost demands, lack of access to and quality of health services and resource scarcity. Vitamin Angels successfully responded to these challenges by disseminating educational resources on COVID-19 prevention and personal protective equipment through local health institutions. Modified capacity-building techniques are assisting providers and program partners during training to strengthen nutrition enforcing tactics while COVID-19 in Africa persists. Vitamin Angels’ legislative advocacy for Micronutrient Supplementation has progressed nutritional security for pregnant women.

Vitamin Angels’ initiative to relieve current and prospective impacts from COVID-19 in Africa has been highly beneficial, raising over $400,000. As Vitamin Angels continues to adapt program implementation to meet the COVID-19-inflicted growing health needs of African communities, governments should continue to uphold policies combatting inequities from COVID-19 in Africa that disproportionately leave women and children vulnerable to social, economic and health insecurities.

– Violet Chazkel

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