At a glance: Guinea

On visit to Guinea, Mia Farrow sees needs and innovations in child and maternal health

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UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow comforts a sick child at a hospital in Guinea.

By Edward Bally

CONAKRY, Guinea, 25 May 2010 – On a five-day trip to Guinea this month, world-renowned actress and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow noted the desperate need for increased investment in essential maternal and child health care.

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At Donka Hospital in the capital, Conakry, there are twice as many children being treated as can be cared for properly. Dozens of patients are forced to sleep on the floor in corridors. “You have dedicated doctors and nurses who are really struggling to meet the need of very many children,” said Ms. Farrow. “The downside is that there are too many children for the capacity of this facility.”

The patients at Donka Hospital – along with the doctors and nurses working to treat them – are victims of Guinea’s recent economic crisis and a decrease in international investment. But as Ms. Farrow witnessed firsthand, UNICEF and its partners are working with communities to create lasting change in the struggling West African nation.

Economy slipping, diseases rising

Since 2006, repeated economic shocks have led to a decrease in aid and investment in Guinea and a resurgence of vaccine-preventable childhood diseases such as polio and measles.

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Mothers holding their young children wait for care at a hospital in rural Guinea.

So far this year, more than 1,000 cases of measles have been reported in the country. Polio, which had been absent from the country for several years, is on the rise again. In 2009 alone, 42 cases of the crippling disease were reported in Guinea.

And while health concerns are on the rise in urban centres, even more barriers to care exist in rural areas.

In the village of Fermessadou, in the Forest Guinea region, the shelves of the local health centre are almost empty. The village lacks crucial tools to provide even the most basic health care.

“I don’t have any medicine,” said Sano Mory, who heads the Fermessadou centre. “Nor do I have a fridge. The motorbike is broken down, and the building is a ruin.” 

Resources turn the tide

Despite these severe constraints, there are signs of hope. With support from UNICEF, many pregnant women in the Guinea countryside now have access to crucial procedures such as caesarean sections. In the local hospital in rural Kissidougou, for example, doctors now practice about 30 operations every month – offering better options in the cases of high risk pregnancies.

 

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A mother and child in the Guinea countryside, where gains in reducing maternal mortality have recently been made with the help of community-led programmes.

During her visit, Ms. Farrow met with mothers, children and other community members, and heard how resources can help turn the tide in Guinea.

“We need to extend the [paediatric] wards,” said Dr. Mamadou Seydou Balte, Director of Guinea’s National Institute for Children’s Health. “We also want to train new paediatricians, so that they can run new specialized units in the hospitals in the region.”

But according to UNICEF Representative in Guinea Julien Harneis, UNICEF support is not enough to tackle the crisis. “It’s a bigger problem,” he said. “The government has to step in, but that requires a reform of the health services.”

Motorcycle ambulances help communities

In rural areas, UNICEF and its partners are supporting one of several creative programmes designed to help communities lead the way in their own recovery effort. The agency is providing local health centres with a motorcycle ambulance service to transport pregnant women in need of urgent obstetric care.

Centres with an ambulance are better equipped to meet the needs of their own community members, no matter how far away they live.

Along with people in the surrounding villages, meanwhile, residents of Fermessadou have set up an innovative mutual health insurance organization called a ‘MURIGA.’ For $5 a year, pregnant women gain access to specialized care during pregnancy and delivery. MURIGAs are operational in 12 villages around Fermessadou, and UNICEF is now working to take the project nationwide.

According to Marie Sia Yombono, Coordinator of the non-governmental organization Humanitarian Agency for Development, which is assisting the insurance programme, MURIGAs are empowering rural health centres – and women – to improve their health.

“MURIGAs help refer women to their regional hospital for free – women who, before this system, would have died because of the lack of money,” said Ms. Yombono.


 

 

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18 May 2010: UNICEF's Edward Balley reports on Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow's trip to Guinea and the need for improved child and maternal health care.
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