The International Board of SurfAid has just spent a week in the field in the Mentawai Island villages off West Sumatra, Indonesia, reviewing the current programs and getting a first-hand feel for the difficulties of working in the isolated region.

Chairman Dr Steve Hathaway (NZ), and board members Ray Wilson (Australia) and Paul Reihle (USA), spent time with CEO Mark Riley and senior management plotting the future course for the organisation.

SurfAid Program and Medical Director, Dr Dave Jenkins, who had just returned from a trip to Cambodia studying Community Care Groups, said: "It's part of who we are to always have the board and non-field team members visit our programs, and we do this as much as possible. We are all about keeping it real which ensures best outcomes and decisions."

Dr Dave said that for the board to see how dangerous it was working out in the islands, and the dire situation in the villages, was key to the whole team working together with the same vision.

The team got direct experience of the Mentawai weather conditions when they were belted by a wild storm that sent them scurrying for shelter in the lee of an island. Unfortunately, the storm meant they were unable to meet up with SurfAid's chartered boat, Indo Jiwa, which is currently doing their mosquito net distribution and malaria education program on the island of Pagai Utara.

With flight schedules looming for their daytime jobs, they had to make the 13-hour return voyage to Padang, on the West Sumatran mainland.

SurfAid has just conducted a baseline health survey in the Katiet villages of the Mentawai which shows 60 per cent anaemia in children and mothers, and up to 48.5 per cent under five malnourishment.

"People are always surprised by how low the understanding is of basic health needs among the population. By meeting loving parents who have malnourished children because of ancient traditions and habits, and lack of education, we are all reminded of the huge challenge that lies ahead," Dr Dave said.

"However, we have researched methodologies extensively and are confident that our care group approach offers the best opportunity to turn around a situation that is thousands of years old."

(Care groups are a proven model where a woman is chosen to represent every 10 houses and join a care group of nine other volunteers. SurfAid staff then train the women in the fundamentals of health such as good nutrition and hygiene. The volunteers visit all their 10 houses relaying the message and encouraging behaviour change.)

Dr Dave said that SurfAid is also working under invaluable guidance from chairman Dr Steve Hathaway.

"Steve is a world-renowned scientist, specialising in epidemiology, and he is helping to create rigorous monitoring systems that will help us make calculated refinements and improvements to our programs based upon solid fact. This is a key aspect to our work and commitment to best practice."

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