03/07/2013 05:49 EST | Updated 05/07/2013 05:12 EDT

Making a Difference One Mom at a Time

The first week in February in Canada was International Development Week, which explores and celebrates how Canada and Canadians are contributing to building stronger families and communities in less developed countries. This year's theme was "I'm making a difference," and Canadians were invited to send in their stories about how they are making a difference. When I think of my own projects, whether in Ethiopia, Nepal, Bolivia, or Guatemala I know that I'm not making a difference just on my own. It takes many of us working together.

When it comes to Canada's work around the world, we know the names of the organizations, but what we might not know is how these international organizations depend on the energy and efforts of local health workers. They might not be famous, but they are well known in their communities, are indispensable to the work we all do, and are often the face of our interventions.

Among the best aspects of being at the Micronutrient Initiative is working with amazing local health workers around the world and getting to exchange ideas and innovations with partners who work in diverse cultures and contexts. Diarrhea is an example of a childhood illness that crosses all borders. Whether it is the female community health volunteers in Nepal, the health extension workers in Ethiopia or the health post staff in Guatemala, it is ultimately these front-line health workers who will help mothers treat their children for diarrhea with zinc and oral rehydration salts (ORS).

Recently, my colleagues from Ethiopia's Ministry of Health introduced me to Sennait, a dedicated health extension worker. She regularly sees children who have diarrhea and talks to their mothers about how to treat it, though she only recently heard about using zinc and ORS as a treatment. While she will soon be trained on how to counsel mothers on treating diarrhea, right now she is concerned about her ability to answer mothers' questions about this "new" treatment.

That same afternoon, I met with two more female health extension workers who had recently attended a pilot hands-on diarrhea treatment training session. They dissolved the zinc tablet in a spoon and mixed the ORS in a cup and then practised how they would help a mom give it to her child. These women were confident and had already been showing mothers in their communities how to use zinc & ORS.

Our relationship with the health workers is important, as the training they receive helps them improve their practice in the field and in turn saves lives. Meanwhile, their experience and understanding of the realities of their work helps us strengthen and grow these interventions around the world.

In our projects in both Ethiopia and Guatemala, we are working with the respective ministries of health to develop participatory training and ensure that these dedicated health care workers not only understand the life saving potential of zinc and why they should recommend zinc and ORS to moms, but also to make sure that they feel confident supporting mothers in how to use this treatment. The new training programs and materials will focus on clear messages, hands-on skill development and support for counselling skills.

I asked one health extension worker what she liked most about her job and she said that she liked being able to make a difference and help moms. She said that only a few years ago, when her child was under five years of age and had diarrhea, zinc wasn't an option in her community. She said she was excited to learn about the new treatment and is motivated by the training. Health extension workers globally are playing a vital role in their countries' health systems especially by helping interventions reach the last mile.

Health workers are the ones who can really make a difference in the global movement to scale-up treatment of diarrhea with zinc and ORS. I am proud to be able to work with MI in supporting health workers in getting zinc & ORS to communities, one mom at a time.