By Bob Coen
MARADI, Niger, 15 December 2010 – With babies strapped to their backs and with health cards in hand, women begin arriving soon after daybreak, seemingly from every direction, in the dusty village of Sarkin Yamma Soffoua. By the time the small health post opens its doors at 8 a.m., more than 50 mothers are waiting with their children for regular check-ups or other consultations.
|VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Bob Coen reports on improving maternal and child health at village clinics in Niger. Watch in RealPlayer|
“There’s no comparison to the those early days when I had my first children and we didn’t have our own health centre,” explains Sahia Nomo, 32, who has brought in her eight-month-old daughter Zainab.
“I’ve had seven children,” she adds, “and I can tell you this centre is very useful and helpful in cases of child deliveries, and in cases of sick children, especially when it comes to things like diarrhoea and malaria.”
Village clinics are key
Village clinics – or integrated health posts, as they are called here – are transforming maternal and child health in this West African nation. Despite being one of the world’s poorest countries, Niger has made some progress towards achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals – a set of targets and commitments by the world’s nations to reduce poverty and disease by 2015.
|© UNICEF video|
|Doctor weighs a baby at an integrated health post in Sarkin Yamma Sofou village, located in the Maradi district of Niger.|
A key factor in this success has been the establishment of integrated health posts in villages across Niger – part of a strategy implemented by the Ministry of Heath, with UNICEF’s support, to reduce infant mortality, improve maternal health and combat diseases such as HIV and malaria.
“Before this centre, there was a high incidence of infant mortality in this village because it is very remote,” explains the chief nurse at the Sarkin Yamma Soffoua health post, Chaibou Balla. “While travelling to get medical care, many children would die from lack of treatment.”
As Mr. Balla speaks, he is examining little Zainab, and her mother Sahia nods in agreement. She lost three children herself to easily preventable diseases before this health post was built.
Free care for children
Another key factor that is driving progress is the Government of Niger’s policy of providing free health care to all children under the age of five and all pregnant women. The policy is supported by UNICEF, which provides drugs and medical supplies.
|© UNICEF video|
|Midwife uses medical illustrations to impart health information at the Sarkin Yamma Sofou integrated health post in Niger's Maradi district.|
“The drugs we provide are all free,” Mr. Balla says as he removes a pack of zinc tablets from the well-stocked medicine cabinet to give to Zainab’s mother. “Once a month the government brings us new stocks, and all oral rehydration solution, and the zinc and malaria tablets, are donated by UNICEF,” he notes.
The village health posts also offer prenatal and neonatal care to expectant mothers, as well as crucial information about how to spot danger signs during pregnancy and the importance of exclusive breast-feeding for the child’s first six months of life.
Imparting these messages to mothers can have a dramatic impact on the whole community. In the case of malaria, which is responsible for most of child deaths in Niger, the number of deaths has been reduced by half since 2005, largely because more families have been encouraged to use bed nets.
Reducing maternal mortality
The village health posts are playing another critical role – saving lives when medical complications arise.
|© UNICEF video|
|Patients at one of more than 2,400 integrated health posts supported by UNICEF across Niger.|
“Having the health post near the village is like a bridge between the community and more specialized health care,” says UNICEF Niger Representative in Niger Guido Cornale. “When there is a woman at risk, they can refer the case to a regional health centre that has specialized equipment – for instance, where they have the facilities to perform a caesarean birth if needed. This way they are helping reduce maternal mortality.”
Today, more than 2,500 community health workers are managing over 2,400 heath posts in Niger. UNICEF estimates that over three-quarters of the country’s children now have access to health care, compared to less than half just four years ago.