Babies, Full and Contented

Pakistan, March 30, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Perveen and her daughter Angel attend a Positive Deviance Health Clinic, a Mercy Corps-led course helping underweight children gain some much-needed pounds. Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Photo: Miguel Samper/Mercy Corps

You would expect a small room of 20 young children between the ages of six months and three years to be quite a noisy affair. But in this narrow space in Pakistan's Hazara Town, it is surprisingly quiet.

The only sounds are the quiet conversations between the moms, who are sitting besides their kids in a wide circle. The children are too busy being fed heaping spoonfuls of suji - a mushy mixture of milk, oil and flour - to be able to chatter or coo.

The children and their mothers are here to take part in a Positive Deviance Health Clinic. This 12-week course, run by Mercy Corps, is meant to help dangerously underweight children put on some much-needed pounds, and help their moms learn more about healthy cooking and good nutrition by highlighting best practices in the community.

The positive deviance approach tries to "identify and optimize existing resources and solutions within the community to solve community problems," rather than try to solve problems using external resources, according to the Tufts-based Positive Deviance Initiative.

"Our staff talks with women who bring children into our free health clinics for vaccinations," says Dr. Zulfiqar Ali, Mercy Corps' regional coordinator for health programs in the southwestern part of Pakistan. "We look for those kids that are obviously under the proper weight for their age and encourage their mothers to take them to our clinics."

These clinics focus not only on helping fill the bellies of these young ones for one day, but also on encouraging their mothers to seek out foods that are relatively inexpensive but pack a lot of nutrition into each bite.

To emphasize this idea, the health officers running the clinic tell the moms to bring in one food item — a vegetable, beans, noodles, or spices — and they all work together to cook a meal for everyone to enjoy. "This way, we can show them the best ways to prepare these different foods so they get the most nutrition out of them," says Amina, the supervisor for this health clinic.

One child who is feeling the benefits of these clinics is Angel, a 14-month-old girl who, according to her mother Perveen, was "very weak and not doing well" before she took part in this course.

Since joining the clinic, Angel has gained almost six pounds, and there are no signs of weakness in her bright smile. "She is really happy now," beams Perveen. "She is so calm during these sessions."

From the looks of the serene young children, happily enjoying spoonfuls of suji, she's not alone.