Thursday, June 16, 2011

Believing in Zero: Saving Children Under 5

I saw Super 8 this week and there is a great line in it where Amanda Michalka’s character is complaining about her mom making her dress modestly and not being allowed to go to a party. She complains to her about how it’s not fair and the mom answers back- "You know what’s not fair? Africa."  I thought this line was pretty fitting for my last post about the schools in Rwanda and the disparities between education there and my privileged education in Los Angeles. The “unfairness” starts right at birth for these children and just being born can be dangerous for a baby in a third world country.

UNICEF has a campaign called “Believe in Zero,” which aims to bring the number of children under the age of 5 who die from preventable causes each day down to zero. It currently stands around 22,000 a decrease of more than 12,000 children per day since 1991. Many of the preventable causes like diarrhea, malnutrition, and complications in child birth are not even considered problems in the western world, but can be fatal in places like Rwanda.

We visited the Ruhengeri hospital in Musanze and got to see first hand the hurdles that women have to face giving birth in Rwanda and the great work UNICEF is doing to make everything safer. One of the biggest problems used to be lack of communication and transportation so just imagine that your water breaks and your husband says okay now it’s time for the 5 hour bicycle ride to the hospital! Not an ideal situation. Because Rwanda is such a densely populated small country over 99% of the people have cell phone reception. UNICEF has put into works a SMS text messaging system at the hospitals where pregnant women are given cell phones and work with local community health workers to keep the hospital updated on the progress of their pregnancies and alert the hospital to emergency situations. UNICEF has also helped the hospital buy an ambulance and a second one was donated by Doctors Without Borders so the ambulances can now go pick up women in labor instead of making them trek to the hospital. In 2005 Rwanda had the highest maternal mortality rate in the world with eight women dying each day due to pregnancy or delivery complications, but in the span of 5 years UNICEF helped cut the rate from 750 deaths per 100,000 live births to 383 deaths per 100,000. Rwanda is also making great strides in child survival.  In the last 5 years they cut the death rate of children under five from 153 per 1,000 to 103 per 1,000 (that's almost 1/3).

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Immunization coverage is also on the rise and since 2007 over 95% of all children under one are fully immunized. Special needs and premature children used to have very little chance of survival, but the Ruhengeri hospital now has two rooms full of incubators donated by UNICEF, which we saw first hand giving safe shelter to a set of premature twins and a newborn baby boy with a low apgar score who would have had little to no chance of survival without the incubator.

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UNICEF helps children at every stage of growth from the aforementioned hospitals at birth through college education like the young man I met at OPDE, the center for street children. Once a child has left the hospital and had his or her immunizations the next step is starting education in pre-school and making sure the child is getting proper nutrition. Malnutrition is a huge problem in third world countries and even children who are given enough to eat are usually not given a properly balanced meal. UNICEF does amazing education work with communities teaching proper nutrition for both adults and children. We visited the Kinigi Early Childhood Development Center, which provides a pre-school education center for young children and also offers nutrition services and counseling.

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The day we visited the mothers were bringing in their children to be weighed and mark the growth progression on BMI (body mass index) charts. All the children in the town had BMI’s in the healthy zone, which is rare in Africa. The women were provided charts by UNICEF and the children were weighed and then had the numbers recorded on both their own personal chart and a town chart to record the progress.

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It was raining hard the day we visited and the women were all crowded together on a bench waiting their turn, but I still had a great time photographing them and the kids. The kids were very smiley and loved having their photo taken.  I felt bad when I had to duck inside because I didn’t have my rain gear for my camera and two little boys tried to follow me crying wanting me to come back out and keep playing with them. I was greeted with big smiles and giggles when I ran back out after the rain let up.
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