When you neighbour is a life-saver

Community based Primary health care centres in South Sudan save lives and give mothers peace of mind.

Helene Sandbu Ryeng
A girl is sitting on her mother's lap
04 December 2019

In a line as straight as a Hollywood star’s hair divide at the Oscar Gala, the road from Renk stretches south to Jelhak. A dusty 1.5 hours’ drive, which will sand blow your nostrils if you don’t cover your nose,  and you reach the UNICEF supported primary health care centre. It is Friday, so the lines of people waiting is shorter than at the beginning of the week.

A little girl is coughing while sitting on her mother's lap
Refda is constantly coughing while waiting to the see doctor at the primary health care centre in Jelhak

10 month- old Refda don’t have to wait long before she is seen by a doctor. The little girl is leaning on her mother starring straight in front of her with glazed eyes.

“She has been constantly coughing since yesterday,” her mother Ayal explains. She can’t praise the health care center enough. She lives a 30-minute walk away, and every time something is wrong with her three children she takes them here and get help. “Having a health centre so close is priceless when you have young ones,” she says.

The primary health care centre in Jelhak, funded through UK Aid’s Harris programme, provides antenatal care, curative consultation, regular health checks, nutrition screening and treatment and immunization. The health centre also has its own cold chain system keeping vaccines cold which is normally quite challenging in South Sudan where the temperatures can be unbearable high. This region is one of the few electrified and has 24-hour power keeping the life-saving drops cool.

Six-month-old Ecram is one of the many children who have benefitted from the vaccinations, but today he is here for something else. “High fever the last three days,’ his mother Achan explains while lines are forming on her forehead in concern. “You see, he is my first. What if he has caught something contagious?”

Jelhak is in the former state of Upper Nile, one of the most conflict affected areas in South Sudan and where access to health care is scarce. People are living scattered across the area which is almost the size of Austria, making it more difficult to provide services to the population. Across South Sudan, 56 per cent of the population live 5 kilometres or more from the nearest health facility, too far when every minute counts.

A boy sitting on the mother's lap
Ecram is sitting on his mother's lap at Jelhak Primary Heath Care Centre

While Refda is coughing in the doctor’s office, Emmanuel is resting in his mother’s arms not engaging a single muscle. The body has no energy. Three days of vomiting and diarrhoea has exhausted the one and a half-year-old boy. His mother, Akir, have experienced the same symptoms and is pretty exhausted too, taking care of her two children while sick. “I just hope the doctor has medicine for whatever this is,” she says with tired-looking eyes.

Untreated diarrhoea is still one of the major child killers in South Sudan, yet so easy to treat. Actually, most of the main diseases ending children’s lives before they have even begun is easily preventable. Poor access to health care combined with poor hygiene practises, poverty and traditional believes in combination with poor access to information, produce one of the highest child mortality rates in the world.

A boy is sitting on his mother's lap at a health centre
Emmanuel sits up for a short while, most of the time he is lying out flat in his mothers arms

Refda gets something for the fever, the doctor thinks it is a cold. The evenings can be quite chilly compared to the hot days under the baking sun. Ecram also receive painkillers and is asked to come back over the weekend if the fever don’t wear off. Emmanuel also gets something for the fever and oral rehydration salt in order for the small body to keep the fluids.

“For me as a first-time mom I can’t praise this clinic and its staff enough. I came here for all my check-ups and now when something is wrong. I wish every mother in South Sudan was a lucky as I,” Achan finishes.

A boy laying in his mothers arms
After receiving medicine reducing the fever, Ecram is coming to life and puts on a smile

With funds from the Harris Programme, UNICEF is supporting 9 health centres in the former states of Upper Nile and Jonglei, providing life-saving services to children and their mothers.