The story of the little town that could in SNNPR
It is not another day ‘in the office’ for health extension worker (HEW) Tezeru Arsicha as she arrives at the South Mesenkela health post at the heart of the Dale district, 270kms from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The 27-year old, who is one of 35,000 government-salaried HEWs around the country trained by the Ministry of Health with the support of UNICEF; would normally be spending around two hours daily on foot going from one home to another to visit families and performing anything from treating malaria to managing new-born infections and pneumonia.
But today, she is the person chosen to tell the story of a small town which would otherwise not be in the headlines and attract the attention of the country’s press core. Cane in tow and proud that her hard work and that of fellow HEW Tsedalech Bale is paying off, she points to a number of flipcharts stuck on the outside wall of the health post doubling as a makeshift display and makes one of the most startling declarations from the previously-unheard of town.
“Number of new born deaths in the last two and half years, zero, there is none,” reads Tezeru from one of the flipcharts. “Number of maternal deaths in the last three and half years, zero, there is none. Because we have managed to track all pregnancies in the last three years and given care to mothers, there have been no deaths.”
Tezeru is perhaps best placed to talk about the ripple effects of the “Saving New-born Child project”, an initiative of UNICEF and Save the Children. Now in her sixth year as a HEW, Tezeru was on the job when the programme kicked off in 2009.
“When I used to visit families, I noticed that mothers would not breastfeed their new-borns,” she says about cultural practices that have challenged progress in reducing child mortality in the area. “Also, some families would wait until the umbilical cord was inflamed before cutting it. When I tried to place a thermometer in their armpits to take their temperature, some mothers would resist because the idea was new to them. So I would place the thermometer to show them how it works.”
Less than four years into the programme, South Mesenkela, despite its staggering average of six children per household; has not just reduced child mortality, but looks to have completely eliminated it, thanks to the efforts of HEWs like Tezeru.
A great future for little Muluneh
“Before Muluneh, I delivered my other three children at home,” Kerime, who speaks only Sidamigna, says through a translator. “I was going to deliver Muluneh at home, but I saw the indications of a possible complication early on and decided to come and deliver at the health centre. I don’t know what could have happened if I did not come to the health centre.”
Like the other 277 pregnancies in the town, Kerime’s pregnancy was identified and recorded in a registry at the South Mesenkela Health Post. She was visited by Tezeru during her pregnant months, something that was not available to her during her previous pregnancies.
“One of the big parts of my work is to inform mothers of abnormal signs before, during, and after pregnancy,” says Tezeru. “I visited Kerime a few months before her delivery and told her the signs in the first weeks of Muluneh’s life.”
Just over two weeks after his birth, Muluneh now looks healthy and his happy mother has already started dreaming about his future. “I want him to become a teacher,” she says. "I have big dreams for him."