Tufts President Anthony P. Monaco awarded Ram Shrestha an honorary degree during the University's 157th Commencement ceremonies on Sunday, May 19, 2013.
In your native Nepal, too many children did not live to see their fifth birthday because of poor nutrition. Many suffered from vitamin A deficiency, leading to blindness. Working with the Nepalese government, you revolutionized a community-based approach to providing good nutrition and medical care to children, training and motivating women volunteers to distribute vitamin A across the country. Today, more than 50,000 women deliver supplements to 3.7 million Nepali children each year. The work of this volunteer corps has expanded, and it now provides health information and medications to treat common, preventable illnesses in children. Twenty thousand lives are saved each year, and child mortality in Nepal has fallen 50 percent over the past two decades. The model you developed has been recognized as a sustainable approach to ensuring the well-being of people around the world. It has been replicated in nations including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Lesotho, and Vietnam. Tufts takes great pride in you as an alumnus of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and for your inspiring work and unwavering commitment to global health, confers upon you the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.
RAM SHRESTHA served for more than two decades as an executive director of the Nepali Technical Assistance Group (NTAG), a nonprofit organization he founded in 1995 to improve maternal and infant health in his native Nepal.
After earning a master’s degree in international nutrition from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in 1990, Shrestha returned to Nepal, a nation where more than fifteen percent of children do not live to see their fifth birthdays. Poor nutrition, particularly vitamin A deficiency, was identified as a major contributor to the unacceptably high rate of child mortality. Vitamin A deficiency also causes night blindness in expectant mothers and blindness in infants and children.
Working to support the Nepalese government’s National Vitamin A Program funded by USAID and UNICEF, Shrestha came up with a novel way to distribute the much-needed supplement of vitamin A across the mountainous country. Using creative and innovative participatory training methods, Shrestha was able to motivate Female Community Health Volunteers (FCHVs) throughout the country to distribute vitamin A capsules and provide nutrition education programs to the mothers.
He used his deep knowledge of Nepali culture to make the volunteers’ efforts visible, even glamorous. The FCHVs were issued green tote bags emblazoned with the program’s logo, and Shrestha made sure that when he visited individual volunteers, he had a government official or other funding agency official in tow. The communities became intrigued with and engaged in the vitamin A program through the creative use of magic shows that promoted consumption of locally available vitamin A-rich foods. Shrestha introduced the idea of creating long-term incentives for volunteers by convincing local government to establish FCHV endowment funds that the volunteers managed to support their work.
The FCHVs, invested in the health of their families and communities, succeeded where outsiders had earlier failed. By 2007, ninety-five percent of all young Nepali children were receiving vitamin A supplements twice each year, in April and in October. Today in Nepal, more than 50,000 FCHVs deliver supplements to 3.7 million children annually. A significant result of this program is the fact that these 50,000 volunteers have been now actively involved in community-based programs for twenty years. This involvement has resulted in these FCHVs gaining a great deal of confidence and stature in their communities, enabling them to contribute to a wide range of other activities in their communities.
The Nepali Technical Assistance Group has leveraged the network of volunteers to distribute other remedies, including iron supplements, deworming medication, and antibiotics, to treat common, preventable ailments in Nepali children. The government is also using the community volunteer model to distribute health information: A current effort seeks to increase reproductive health literacy among teenaged girls. These community-based intervention programs save an estimated 20,000 lives each year. Child mortality has been cut in half over the past twenty years. Vitamin A-related eye disease among pregnant women, who also receive the nutrition education about vitamin-rich animal foods has fallen, too.
Efficient, sustainable, and low-cost, Shrestha’s innovative Female Community Health Volunteer model has been widely recognized as a best practice for community-based nutrition and medical interventions. He has lent his expertise with the model to projects in Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Lesotho, and Afghanistan, and is currently supporting a University Research Co., LLC–USAID project to expand the model in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania to empower existing community groups to improve their own health. Shrestha is the author of numerous peer-reviewed studies about maternal and childhood nutrition and disease. In a landmark study he published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2007, it was shown that iron and riboflavin supplements enhance the effectiveness of vitamin A in reversing night blindness.
In 2000, Shrestha received the Global Health Council’s International Award for Best Practices in Global Health. In 2005 he was named to Time magazine’s list of Global Health Heroes and in 2006 he was honored with the Friedman School Alumni Association’s Frontline Award for his innovative work in nutrition. He was also conferred a Prabal Gorkha Dakchhin Bahu Award by His Majesty’s Government of Nepal in 2005.
Shrestha will receive an honorary Doctor of Science degree.