In Peru, a Fresh Take on Combating Childhood Anemia

Understanding local customs, habits, and traditions leads to program innovations
Stronger crops in Peru

Our field staff regularly conducts health and nutrition-focused interviews with residents of a rural Andean region of Peru, an area where around 40% of families live in extreme poverty and up to 33% of children under five years old suffer from chronic malnutrition. Six in ten children here are anemic, which means they do not have enough iron in their blood. With more than 150 people from 20 communities to talk to, we find that these interviews take time and effort, but they are important to understand what families with anemic children are going through. 

Untreated childhood anemia has serious consequences—anemic kids are more likely to be weak and sickly, and are less likely to learn to read or finish school. To ensure a healthier future for these children, we work to understand why malnutrition and anemia are so widespread. Gathering local perspectives is essential to us helping these communities create long-term solutions.

Uncovering the Causes

Families here face many challenges that contribute to the prevalence of malnutrition and anemia. Most farmers have small plots where they grow just enough to feed their families without much left to sell. While these plots generally produce enough food, nutrient levels in the food are low. So even if children get enough food to eat in terms of quantity, they do not get the vitamins, minerals and energy they need. 

Raising livestock is another way for local families to produce both food and income, but women who care for the animals often need to leave their children at home and walk long distances to their animals’ grazing pastures. Women may also need to do extra household chores if their husbands seek outside employment to supplement the family’s income. When parents’ other responsibilities prevent them from having enough time to thoroughly look after their children’s health and nutrition, those children may be at greater risk for malnutrition and anemia. 

Supplemental Solutions

In response to these challenges, our team has established “Anemia No,” a campaign to reduce anemia rates in children under five years old by 30% in the next four years. Part of the initiative will expand a successful government program that provides nutritional supplements (called “chispitas,” which translates to “sparks,” by locals) to families in need. “Sparks” give children complex nutrients essential for healthy growth that are missing from their main diets.

“The spark [nutritional supplement] helps babies and makes them stronger. If our children are not malnourished and sick with anemia, they will know how to write and read better…. There is plenty for children to learn, but if they grow sick with anemia there is not much more that can be done.”

Emilia Rivera, 40 years old, Peruvian mother

Anemia No” will also add nutrients to people’s main diets through biofortification. For example, potato is a popular local crop, but it’s not nutrient-rich. Our agricultural techniques help improve iron levels in potato crops. While this is a new agricultural method, traditional customs of agriculture and childcare are also being explored to see how previous generations of Peruvians maintained healthy diets. In this case, looking to local traditions helps create innovative solutions to the problems of hunger and anemia. And making malnutrition and anemia history in Peru is exactly what “Anemia No” is designed to do.

Tell Us What You Think

What cultural factors impact our nutrition in the United States?  How are they different from or similar to those in rural Peru?

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