“They could not see the words on the whiteboard, [and] they could not read!” Bernard Kervyn, founding director of Mekong Plus, said, emphasising how simple yet devastating myopia in rural areas can be.
For nearly half of its 26 years in existence, the Vietnam and Cambodia based non-profit organisation that aims to eliminate poverty through initiatives relating to education, sustainable agriculture and infrastructure, has been working with schools on an ambitious series of health education programs that battles childhood eyesight and dental problems.
Undetected eyesight problems a major hurdle to learning
“In the beginning, even the location health staff said that children in villages don’t need glasses!” Bernard related.
The consequence of this assumption became evident, children with undetected myopia become effectively disabled and unable to learn in the classroom.
To rectify the problem, Mekong Plus started by training local health officials and clinics to screen children in Primary (Grades) 3, 4, and 5. Currently, about 50,000 primary school children in almost 100 schools benefit from this eye check-up program.
“We designed the program [together] with the local authorities. Now they do it by themselves while we [at Mekong Plus] provide financial support.” Bernard added.
Children who are identified to be suffering from myopia and other eyesight problems are taken to Ho Chi Minh City by bus where they visit a partner eye specialist where they are diagnosed for free. In addition to that, those from low-income families receive free eyeglasses.
About 4–5% of children who have participated in the program require glasses. Mekong Plus considers this a success, especially with the rural context in mind.
“The solution is actually very cheap,” Bernard reminded and explained that the average cost to rectify eyesight problems for each child is only US$10–15 as compared to nearly US$300 for hearing issues.
“Some children become very bright after getting glasses!”
Today the program is conducted every second year and has also spontaneously triggered awareness in parents. Many are now aware of how common childhood eyesight problems can be and choose to take their children for eye check-ups on their own accord.
Good oral hygiene practices start from young
Unlike the eyesight program that focuses on children between the ages of 9 to 11, Mekong Plus other equally successful oral hygiene program begins during kindergarten and lasts until Primary 5.
The building blocks of the programme are uncomplicated—schoolchildren are brought to playgrounds with buckets where they brush their teeth together once a week. They are also stimulated through group activities, games and textbooks designed by Mekong Plus.
“We even found these books on the market [being sold]!” Bernard explained. He sees this as unexpected praise from the local community.
“It is a visual exercise [for them],” he recounts, adding that the children return home with the news, educating parents in the process.
For schools new to the prograe, buckets, cups and staff training is provided for free. Monetary assistance decreases gradually every year until no funding is given by the fifth year and beyond. Mekong Plus notes that more than 70% of participating schools continue with high performance.
“The only thing we don’t provide is toothbrushes!” Bernard said. With children required to buy their own toothbrushes, the program becomes accessible outside of school, and even when the time comes for a toothbrush to be replaced.
Once a year, volunteers from Mekong Plus work together with a committee made up of headmasters from different schools to conduct dental examinations at beneficiary schools. With 10 different criteria to score, including trash disposal checks, campus sanitation checks, and a hematoxylin-eosin stain test on a sample size of about 10-30% of students to identify cases of tooth decay through plaque indexing, Mekong Plus compares all schools in one district with a greater goal in mind.
“The best schools will receive a reward of co-funding from Mekong Plus to upgrade [sanitation infrastructure] according to their needs and proposal,” Bernard explained.
Three schools per district benefit from this ‘reward’ on an annual basis.
Going beyond primary schools and how you can help Mekong Plus
Currently, more than 9 districts in 3 provinces in Vietnam benefit from these initiatives, with Mekong Plus also running a sex and gender education program for high school students that aims to help children embrace gender equality during puberty.
Beyond personal well-being, Mekong Plus also conducts plastic waste collection drives for children where waste gathered is sold for recycling. Regular tree-planting days in school compounds also help to promote diligence and the importance of ‘clean and green’ in young minds.
Schoolkids participating in a tree planting day in Cambodia.
Interested members of the public can consider sponsoring eyeglasses for less than US$15 a pair or consider co-funding school improvement projects with Mekong Plus.