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Mother and Child Health Week reaches children without access to basic health services

© UNICEF/Pak09/Paradela
A newborn in a remote rural village in Pakistan receives lifesaving vaccines during Mother and Child Health Week.

By Antonia Paradela

UMERKOT, Pakistan, November 2009 – Sidori Churon follows with close attention the drawings of a chart while her four-month-old baby Isar sleeps on her lap. She is here to attend a health session to alert mothers like her about the signs of pneumonia in small children. The illness is one of the main causes of death of children under five in Pakistan.

Sidori is one of over 250,000 people, a quarter of the population of Umerkot District in Sindh Province, who do not have access to a primary health care clinic or a Lady Health Worker. She, like her fellow villagers, belong to the country’s small Hindu population, and this information session, held in her tiny village, is the first time she has had the opportunity to learn about modern care practices for children.

To address the lack of access to basic health services of mothers like Sidori, UNICEF supports the government’s Mother and Child Health Weeks, which enable the delivery of a package of high-impact, low-cost child survival interventions. During the initiative, children, especially in rural areas, receive immunizations and deworming medicines. Mothers are counselled on household practices like breastfeeding and basic hygiene, and on how to identify and treat pneumonia and diarrhoea, which could potentially prevent thousands of deaths. 

For Sidori the initiative brings to her neighbourhood the first doses of BCG, pentavalent and polio vaccine for her only living child and the first dose of tetanus for herself. This young mother of about sixteen years of age has already gone through four pregnancies: two ended in miscarriage and one baby died seven days after birth. In rural areas of Sindh Province, in Pakistan’s southeast, where Sidori lives, 51 per cent of girls are married before they are eighteen and a quarter before sixteen. Newborns are not registered at birth and women and girls do not know their age.

Due to the lack of women health workers in the district, one of Sidori’s neighbours is running the health session. Dahi Bheel has been trained by one of UNICEF’s implementing partners as a community resource worker. While Dahi never had the chance to go to school, she agreed to participate in the initiative “to improve the women and children’s health since there is no health facility in this area,” she says emphatically.

© UNICEF/Pak09/Paradela
Mothers like Sidori (right), follow with attention the health session about pneumonia, a major killer of children under five in Pakistan.

As with many mothers living in this semi-desert zone near the Indian border, Dahi has seen countless children suffering from illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia. Water is scarce and villagers store rainwater for drinking. The nearest health facility is more than forty kilometres away and no public transport is available. But little by little, Dahi has seen Mother and Child Weeks starting to have an impact: “Now many women know about diarrhoea, pneumonia and the importance of handwashing. And it is making a difference in the health of the children.”

“Pneumonia is a seasonal calamity, taking the lives of 52,000 Pakistani children every year,” says Martin Mogwanja, the UNICEF Country Representative for Pakistan. “If mothers know how to prevent pneumonia and care for ill children, then we could save many of these lives.”

Umerkot is one of most disadvantaged areas of Sindh Province. Over 12 children out of 100 die before the age of five, a much higher rate than in urban areas of the province or the country as a whole. A majority of these deaths occur in the first four weeks of life. Pakistan as a whole has the eighth highest neonatal mortality in the world, largely attributable to lack of access to health services and their poor quality when available.

“Pneumonia is a seasonal calamity, taking the lives of 52,000 Pakistani children every year,” says Martin Mogwanja, the UNICEF Country Representative for Pakistan. “If mothers know how to prevent pneumonia and care for ill children, then we could save many of these lives.”

About 15 million children under five years of age and 3.4 million pregnant women are the target of this Mother and Child Week, an initiative of the Ministry of Health with the support of UNICEF and other partners. During the first week of November, 90,000 Lady Health Workers and 3,500 supervisors held health sessions for families, especially mothers, in 134 districts on how to protect their children from pneumonia and other health threats in the coming winter.

“We have seen through our work in other countries like Ghana, as well as in Pakistan, that we can save thousands of lives and improve the health of millions at very low cost through Mother and Child Weeks,” says Mr Mogwanja. “By working together, the government, Pakistan’s health workers, development agencies and families can use and strengthen our existing infrastructure to make sure that every family can protect its children from pneumonia and other potentially deadly diseases.”



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