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This Simple Solution Has Cultural Resonance

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Little Fish Fights a Big Problem

Christopher Charles, a Canadian epidemiologist, saw the disheartening impact of widespread iron deficiency in large segments of a population when he lived in Cambodia in 2008.  Iron deficiency means there aren’t enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body, and that can cause fatigue, lethargy, dizziness and other ills. Iron deficiency in children can impair long-term physical and mental development.

Anemia is a multifaceted global health problem with dietary and non-dietary components, but iron deficiency is major cause.  Dr. Charles’s research on anemia in Cambodia suggested more than half the population suffered from iron deficiency, with even higher rates among women and children. Iron supplements were too costly for large scale use and their side effects would spur resistance.

The Lucky Iron Fish is a small piece of utilitarian art that fits in your hand. It has reduced anemia by half in places where it’s been used, and a Wired magazine story by Margaret Rhodes reports more than 5,000 are in use in Cambodia now with thousands more on the way.  It took several iterations for Dr. Charles and colleagues to come up with this inexpensive, low tech innovation to address a complex health problem.  

Dr. Charles knew a chunk of iron in a pot of cooking food would release 60 to 300 milligrams of iron into heated food or water, enough for about 75 percent of a family’s daily nutritional needs. But the rectangular chunks first distributed to people were ugly. As a Slate story by Kristin Hohenadel notes, people used them for door stops and props for furniture legs.  The next step was to round corners so they wouldn’t scratch cooking pots, but people still found them unappetizing. Then promoters molded iron into the shape of a little lotus flower, a spiritual symbol in Cambodia. But that didn’t catch on for meal prep either.  Dr. Charles, Gavin Armstrong and others who formed the Lucky Iron Fish project, began seeking clues in Cambodian culture that might help adoption. They discovered that the kantrop fish, a staple in the diet, was also considered a symbol of hope and good fortune. The Slate story says Dr. Charles and colleagues distributed a newly designed iron kantrop fish replica to 400 people in five test communities and were delighted to find 90 percent were complying with daily use. Later blood tests have confirmed improved health among users.

Surprisingly, the best source of available iron turned out to be used auto parts, according to Armstrong, who explains that all materials used are carefully screened to prevent any contaminants in the finished iron fish. Watch Armstrong’s video presentation here.  Watch Dr. Charles describing his work here.

The fish won this year’s Cannes Lion Grand Prix award in product design. The Wired story notes that’s an impressive achievement for a lump of molded metal competing in a category filled with such high tech entries as a DNA sequencing food testing kit and a gamified studio cycling bike. Despite a later dustup over whether the entry should have been submitted by the Lucky Iron Fish organization or its marketing partner, there has been no question about the health benefits of the little iron fish.

Dr. Charles told The Atlantic that the genius of the Lucky Iron Fish is that it does not have to be shaped like a fish. “If we were to go to sub-Saharan Africa,” he said, “or a dry area where fish is not an important part of the diet, we could very easily change it to a different symbol of luck.”




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