U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson was in Kabul recently to announce the arrival of a potentially breakthrough health education tool that will be used in a pilot program, implemented by International Medical Corps, to ensure wellness and reduce the risk of disease among women of child-bearing age in rural Afghanistan.
That tool is the Afghan Family Health Book, developed by LeapFrog Enterprises, which enables women who cannot read or write to receive health education through interactive, electronic picture books in local languages. The Afghan Family Health Book features colorful, culturally appropriate illustrations, which play recorded messages in the two major languages of Afghanistan (Dari and Pashto) when touched with a pen. Absolutely no reading skills are required.
Health status in Afghanistan is tightly correlated with education, but literacy rates among rural Afghan women are extremely low. As a result, many of Afghanistan’s basic health indicators are shockingly poor. Creative approaches to bridging the gap between education and health—like the Afghan Family Health Book—are, therefore, essential.
“Too many Afghan women and children are dying due to poor sanitation and hygiene,” Secretary Thompson explained. “We hope this talking book will be a step in the right direction in helping the people of Afghanistan live longer, healthier, happier lives.”
The program is a partnership between HHS and International Medical Corps, which has two decades of experience providing health care, health education and health care training to Afghan communities. International Medical Corps community health workers began distributing the books to 2,000 families in four districts in Kabul and Laghman Provinces this week. According to Suzanne Griffin, International Medical Corps’ program manager for the Afghan Family Health Book project, reactions to the book so far have been overwhelmingly positive.
“We noticed at the end of an introductory session that women were so interested in the books that they wouldn’t put them down,” she remarked. “They were even reluctant to stop for tea!”
In order to measure and monitor the impact of the Aghan Family Health Books in changing health knowledge and practices, International Medical Corps will conduct an outcomes study with assistance from Global Relief Technologies (GRT). Baseline and follow-up data will be collected through community-based surveys and recorded via GRT’s electronic data collection system based on a handheld PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) interface and utilizing GRT’s Virtual Networks Operation Center. The program’s evaluation will compare health knowledge, attitudes and practice of women whose families receive the Afghan Family Health Book with those of women whose families do not receive the book.
The results will enable HHS to determine future use, additional training needs and product improvements, and will also inform the distribution plan for an additional 18,000 Afghan Family Health Books throughout Afghanistan.
“We expect the books to make an even bigger impact in communities that are either too remote or too dangerous for foreign and Afghan aid workers to reach and, therefore, have no access to personal health instruction,” Griffin says.
For the last 20 years, International Medical Corps has been not only saving lives and relieving suffering among conflict- and drought-affected Afghan communities, but also empowering communities to care for themselves through training and other capacity building activities. In 2003 alone, International Medical Corps trained more than 2,200 Afghan doctors, nurses and other health workers, including over 900 health educators and community health workers, expanding access to health care for nearly 900,000 Afghans.