TSUROKPE TOTA, 13 December 2017 - “I hadn’t been feeling well for a while. I would come to school and feel very sleepy during lessons. Sometimes, I’d give up, put my head on the table and just go to sleep. I’d wake up usually to a teacher’s angry call. At times, I asked my friends sitting close to me to tap me when the headmaster was around. Other days, I felt dizzy when walking to school or during break time. So, I’d stop and take a break.” Fortune, 14 years, shares her story. “At first, I thought I was just tired. Maybe from housework or playing, I wasn’t sure. Later, I got fed up with it and finally told my grandmother.” Fortune’s grandmother simply advised her to go to the hospital so her issue could be diagnosed.
Horlali is 15 years and attends Tsuropke Tota Basic School, same as Fortune. She also felt tired and inactive most of the time. She shares her experience. “It’s difficult to feel that way most of the time. I am a final year student and should be active so I can study and prepare for my final exams, but I’m always sleepy in class. I decided to eat often so I could have more energy, but I didn’t have much of appetite so that didn’t work. I always ate once or twice in a day” When asked about whether that affected her health, she responded, “It did. My menstrual cycle only last for two days, but it should be five days for me. It also gets very painful and that makes even more difficult to concentrate in class.”
Things took a positive turn for both girls when about eight weeks ago, the Ghana Health Service organized a screening for all girls, with the permission of their parents, in the school. Fortune and Horlali were both found to be anemic and their parents and caregivers were encouraged to take them to the hospital for further treatment. A week after the screening was done, weekly doses of iron and folic tablets were provided to all girls in school. Of the two million girls in Ghana aged between 15 to 19 years, one million are anemic.
Anemia occurs when there is a low count of red-blood cells or hemoglobin in the blood, leading to constant fatigue, tiredness, headaches and dizzy spells. During menstruation, adolescent girls lose blood which increases the need for iron and folic acid in the blood. Adolescent girls who do not eat foods that replenish iron and folic acid often find it difficult to keep up with lessons in class and do not perform as well as boys. This also makes it difficult for them partake in physical activities. It is for this reason that UNICEF and the Ghana Health Service, put in place measures to help adolescent girls in Ghana feel more active and perform better in school by launching the GIFTS (Girls’ Iron Folic Tablet Supplementation) initiative.
The GIFTS initiative is the first of its kind on the continent and will provide free iron and folic acid supplementation to menstruating girls and women aged 10 -19 years. With funding from the Korean International Cooperative Agency (KOICA), the first phase of the programme has begun in four (Brong Ahafo, Northern, Upper East and Volta) of the ten regions in Ghana with a potential for scale up. In the four regions, the programme will reach 360,000 girls in junior and senior high schools, vocational and training institutions and 600,000 girls who are not in these institutions or out of school.
Funding from KOICA has also helped train 4500 teachers and 3000 health workers to implement the programme which includes nutrition and health education for adolescent boys and girls, parents and community members around the country taking into consideration age and gender specific needs. “Now I have more energy, I eat better and my menstrual cycle is regular and painless.” Horlali noted. “I want to ask my parents to buy me some of the tablets while we are on vacation.”