Iron blood levels in Guatemala improve with WSU project

Iron Fish By  Garrett R. Kalt , Murrow College, backpack journalist

ZACAPA, Guatemala – Washington State University students and faculty recently returned from a 10-day volunteer effort to help assess whether a health project designed to increase iron levels in the blood of rural Guatemalan people has been successful.

WSU participants worked hand in hand with Hearts in Motion (HIM), a nonprofit organization, on the medical service project.

“After my first year participating in HIM, I realized Guatemalan diets are primarily starch-based,” said Kathy Beerman, a WSU professor in the School of Biological Sciences and a veteran HIM volunteer. “This caused me to believe that many Guatemalans are probably faced with a lack of iron in their diets, and therefore at increased risk for iron deficiency anemia. That is when we started our research.”

30 percent of world’s population

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), iron deficiency anemia is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world, impacting nearly 2 billion people — over 30 percent of the world population.

wsu students test iron blood levels in Guatemala
WSU students test iron blood levels in Guatemalan residents

In her efforts, Beerman discovered Lucky Iron Fish (, an organization dedicated to fighting iron deficiency globally by providing families with an “iron fish” to add when boiling drinking water or cooking food. Lucky Iron Fish claims one of its fish-shaped cast iron ingot products can provide up to 90 percent of an individual’s recommended daily iron intake.

Beerman’s collaborative efforts with HIM and Lucky Iron Fish resulted in a donation of 200 Lucky Iron Fish last year and 60 this year to families served in the HIM service trips.

An iron fish lasts up to five years and is clinically proven to be a safe and reliable way to add iron to your diet when dietary changes and/or iron supplements are not options.

10 years of volunteer service

For the past decade, the annual 10-day service trip has given hundreds of WSU students from various academic disciplines — including pre-nursing, pre-medicine, chemical engineering and business administration — the chance to help treat dental and surgical needs, such as cleft palate repair. This year’s trip gave the WSU volunteers a chance to verify whether the Lucky Iron Fish distributed in 2016 had improved blood iron levels for residents in rural Guatemalan villages.

“This project would not be possible without so many helping hands,” said Beerman, “from Hearts in Motion providing the platform, to The Lucky Iron Fish providing resources, and Washington State University students helping with iron status assessments, Spanish translation and more.”

Five out of the 10 days in Guatemala, WSU students and faculty tested iron levels in various rural communities. Teams gathered metrics from patients, including weight and height, and then drew blood to determine iron status. If patients were determined to be anemic, they were sent home with an iron fish.

Results show increase

During the remainder of the trip, 53 families who received a Lucky Iron Fish in 2016 were retested. The results indicated that about nine out of ten families who used the product three times a week showed iron-level increases.

“Our involvement with Hearts in Motion not only provided students with the opportunity to serve and learn,” said, Ana María Rodriguez-Vivaldi, program director and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences on the WSU Pullman campus, it left them feeling they “made an impact on countless Guatemalans who needed help.”

Chancellor participates

Lisa Brown, WSU Spokane chancellor, also participated in the HIM anemia research project this year.

“The trip allowed me to experience WSU’s commitment to service and team-based health care first hand,” said Brown. “Observing our students working together to care for people in rural villages without secure access to care, learning side-by side with our dedicated faculty, and having enough energy at the end of the day to play soccer with the children, was truly inspiring.”

According to the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, approximately 54 percent of Guatemala’s population lives below the national poverty line. Beleaguered with 20 percent illiteracy and 21 percent child labor, Guatemala has among the worst health outcomes compared to other Latin American countries.

“My hope is that WSU continues to support this annual trip and that students interested in health professions or Central America continue to take advantage of this rewarding personal and professional opportunity,” said Brown.


* Photos by Garrett Kalt, WSU Honors College and the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication.


Media Contacts:

  • Garrett R. Kalt , Murrow Backpack Journalist, 775-427-8272
  • Kathy Beerman, WSU School of Biological Sciences, 509-335-5011,
  • Ana María Rodriguez-Vivaldi, program director and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, 509-335-6877,