When Guo Honglian's doctor first gave her multi-micronutrients during her second pregnancy, she thought they were birth control pills. The micronutrients pills were completely new to Changwu County in Shaanxi Province. This may be the land of the Terracotta Warriors (the excavations of stone soldiers and horses that were buried with the dead body of China's first emperor), but the province is also known for its parched landscape and underweight babies.
Guo recalls with painful clarity the birth of her first-born - her daughter Ding Xin - in 2000, when she had been confined to bed for three months. "I felt dizzy and fragile. My face was pale like paper. The village doctor found that I had anaemiaand my daughter suffered from malnutrition, due to my own poor nutrition during pregnancy." But this was not the worst of it.
At age 3, Ding Xin could not talk or walk. "But what could I do on an annual family income of less than 1,000 yuan (US$1=8 Yuan), which is what I make from my apple orchard?" asks Guo. She had wanted the best for her child, but had only been able to add eggs to her daily diet of noodles and salty vegetables in the very last month of pregnancy. "I sold apples and bought eggs in return," she says.
Anaemia (caused by inadequate iron content in the diet) during pregnancy is considered very harmful for babies. It can cause low birth weight babies (less than 2.5 kilos), babies with impaired brain development or even stillborn babies. In China, over 25 per cent of pregnant women suffer from anaemia, and in rural areas, that figure is 28 per cent, according to data from the National Nutrition Survey 2004.
When Guo got pregnant again, she went to the township hospital to ask how she could better provide for her unborn child. That was the day she first learned about multi-micronutrients from the doctor who gave her eight boxes of 30 tablets each for monthly use. Guo also received a handbook on maternity care, a registration form for each medical check-up and a personal information card with some useful nutrition and health indices.
The multi-micronutrient pills Guo and the other mothers-to-be of Changwu County received contain 15 elements, including iron, zinc, copper, folic acid and vitamins A, B, C, D and E.
"The township hospital staff were really helpful, advising me to stay at home where they would come and give me regular check-ups and medical counselling," she says. Ding Zhao was born in 2004. He weighed 3.5 kilos (7.7 pounds). "I even gained weight after my boy was born, and he has not caught a single cold since," said Guo, looking tenderly at the energetic 2-year-old jumping up and down on her bed.
The average annual income of the people of Changwu County is only 1,200 yuan. But 2,270 women have now given birth to healthy babies after the introduction of the micronutrients pills.
Underweight babies are prone to disease and have impaired mental and physical development. About one-fifth of all newborn babies in developing countries are underweight and, as the biggest developing country in the world, China has 1.2 million underweight babies born each year, according to the World Health Organisation.
Launched in June 2002 by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Ministry of Health (MoH) and Xi'an Jiaotong University, the 'Multi-Micronutrients Supplements for Pregnant Women Pilot Project' involved 5,960 pregnant women in Changwu and Binxian Counties of Shaanxi Province. The project was part of a seven-country trial to test the effectiveness of multiple vitamin and mineral supplements to reduce low birth weight. This trial was supported by UNICEF and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.
Drug giant Roche provided about 476,000 Yuan worth of free raw materials. UNICEF provided a further 100,000 Yuan to the Institute of Nutrition and Food Hygiene of China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to process the raw materials and manufacture 720,000 free tablets as well as support for training, supervision and monitoring.
Because the micronutrient tablets look like the pills used for family planning, the township hospital staff encountered some initial resistance to the free distribution. Trust came gradually, says UNICEF Health and Nutrition Section Chief Dr Koen Vanormelingen.
"People are rational. They will change their behaviour when they see that it will improve their situation. You cannot just tell them that what they have done until now is wrong, implying they are ignorant, or they shouldn't do this or that. You should build on their concerns and give them information, taking into account their culture, language and beliefs," says Vanormelingen.
Within three years of the project, underweight births had dropped from 9.3 per cent to between 4.6 per cent and 2.6 per cent, and anaemia among women of childbearing age had dropped from 75 per cent to 32 per cent.
Such demonstrable results interested more women like Guo, all asking whether they can obtain multi-micronutrients for their babies too.
"We will have extensive examinations in the next two years for babies whose mothers have taken multi-micronutrients. In the near future, multi-micronutrients designed specifically for babies less than three years old will be handed out free in rural areas," says Dr Yan Hong, Dean of the Medical School of Xi'an Jiaotong University, chief monitor of the project.
The new mother-and-baby health and nutrition package of care, which includes multiple vitamin and mineral supplements, will cover 46 counties in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and 11 other provinces, including Yunnan, Qinghai and Gansu, under the 2006-2010 MoH-UNICEF programme. Some 827,000 poor women and their babies will benefit, hopes Vanormelingen.
"In the case of the poor populations, we suggest that the government foot the bill for multi-micronutrient supplements," he says. "This will greatly contribute to improving the physical and intellectual development of children. Healthier mothers give birth to healthier and stronger babies with the potential to contribute much more to their communities and to the country."