NEW YORK, USA, 13 December 2011 – The roar of a motorbike heralds the arrival of health workers in a remote village in Kayes District, Mali. They are bringing life-saving medical supplies to communities that lack easy access to health care.
|VIDEO: UNICEF corresponent Bob Coen reports on expanding child and maternal health to reach the most vulnerable in Mali. Watch in RealPlayer|
A crowd of children and women is already waiting for them, queuing on both sides of a dusty village road for the immunizations and other supplies being delivered.
Also waiting are community health volunteers – locals entrusted to attend to the health needs of their community. They will administer vaccines and vitamin supplements to the village’s children and teach families about proper hygiene and nutrition.
Together, these health workers and volunteers are critical links in a chain of services designed to battle Mali’s child and maternal mortality rates – some of the worst in the world.
|VIDEO: Dr. Rownak Khan, UNICEF senior health specialist, speaks about the elimination of maternal and neonatal tetanus. Watch in RealPlayer|
Expanding health coverage
For a majority of the country, obtaining basic health care is a cumbersome and sometimes impossible task; less than half the population lives within 5 km of a health post. The consequences of this poor infrastructure are grim: Mali has world’s second highest mortality rate for children under five, and women have a 1 in 22 chance of dying due to pregnancy.
But a UNICEF programme, implemented by the Ministry of Health, is working to expand basic health services to those who need it most.
“Now with vaccination, we have found ways of educating the population to do the right thing and improve their health,” says Mamby Diakate, a community health volunteer.
|© UNICEF video|
|A health worker administers polio drops to a baby in Kayes District, Mali.|
As Mr. Diakate and other volunteers administer vaccines to the assembled children, a nurse attends to the village’s pregnant women, performing prenatal examinations and distributing iron supplements and insecticide-treated mosquito nets.
Such attention to pregnancy is critical. Obstetrical complications are all too common, results of Mali’s high incidence of early marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
To address these issues, public dialogues and behaviour-changing initiatives are helping communities reconsider harmful traditions. Health workers are also educating the public about the importance of prenatal examinations and delivery services.
Pregnant women are encouraged to travel to community health centres when it is time to deliver. There, trained medical staff can ensure women and their babies are properly cared for and can treat potential complications. These centres also offer prenatal care to pregnant women, as well as free, anonymous HIV tests.
|© UNICEF video|
|A young mother and her child in Kayes District, Mali.|
Improving child survival
Villagers are also encouraged to bring sick children to community health centres. The majority of children admitted to these centres are sick with malaria – the number one killer of children in Mali.
These expanded health services, paired with the provision of safe drinking water and education about proper hand-washing and latrine use, have had a tremendous effect on child survival.
“With the efforts we have put in place, especially the free treatment of cases of malaria in children under five and pregnant women, we’ve been able to significantly reduce the number of deaths linked to malaria,” says Dr. Sinaga of the Regional Reference Hospital in Kita.
This has not escaped the notice of 20-year-old Mariam Kieta.
She is recovering from labour in the bright blue maternity ward of a community health centre in Kayes. “I’ve been coming here since my first child,” says Ms. Kieta, cradling her healthy newborn daughter. “They take good care of me, and I never have any problems.”