The Drum Opinion – Australian Broadcasting Corporation
November 3, 2011
Protecting the world’s children from preventable deaths
By Suzanne Dvorak, Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children
If they were alive today, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin would have celebrated the Australian Government’s announcement at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth to commit $50 million of the $535 million funding gap needed to eradicate polio.
Responsible for developing vaccines against the incurable disease that crippled thousands of people – especially young children – during the first half of the 20th century, Salk and Sabin’s vaccines have helped to eliminate polio in most parts of the world.
This has been a tremendous achievement. To date, more than two billion children have been immunised against polio and over five million have been saved from life-long paralysis, disability or death. What was once one of the most dreaded childhood diseases of the 20th century has nearly become a thing of the past.
But despite significant progress, polio remains endemic in four countries – Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan – with individual cases occurring in a handful of other developing countries. As recently as August of this year, the confirmed polio diagnosis of a young child in Kenya caused widespread concern and resulted in supplementary immunisations the following month of over one million children in an effort to ward off an epidemic. Another four million children are expected to be immunised within the next month.
Fears of a large-scale outbreak of the debilitating disease are well founded. In 2004 and 2005, an outbreak of polio in Sub-Saharan Africa eventually spread as far as Indonesia and paralysed 1,400 children for life.
The importance of vaccines to eliminate diseases such as polio is self-evident. Whether it’s vaccines against polio or the two biggest killers of children under five – pneumonia and diarrhoea – or the new malaria vaccine announced last week by the New England Journal of Medicine, vaccines are critical to saving children’s lives. Donor countries, including Australia, have recognised this by pledging $US4.3 billion to ensure that vaccines for children will not be in short supply.
But vaccines don’t inject themselves.
In order to protect babies and children from the diseases, illnesses and conditions that claimed more than 7.6 million lives last year, we need more than just vaccines. We need health workers.
Health workers, properly trained, supported, equipped and paid, can prevent most child deaths. They play a central and critical role in improving access and quality health care for a population. Health workers are the backbone of healthcare – essential for diagnosing illnesses, dispensing treatment, assisting at births and providing immunisations to children.
In short, there is no health care without health workers.
There have been notable commitments made by a number of Commonwealth countries including Australia which has committed to train and support tens of thousands of health workers in countries like Papua New Guinea, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.
Yet over one billion people in the world lack access to quality health services including 40 million children under the age of five.
The World Health Organization recommends a minimum of 2.3 doctors, nurses and midwives for every 1,000 people. According to this measure, 61 developing countries currently have a critical shortage of health workers.
One of these countries is Nigeria where Catherine Oluwatoyin Ojo, a midwife and nurse specialising in paediatrics works in the Northern city of Zaria. With one in seven children under five dying each year, Nigeria accounts for almost 11 per cent of all child deaths globally. As Catherine describes, “I see women in my community and their babies dying every day from things that can be easily prevented. Especially in remote areas, there is no basic care for mothers and their children.”
According to Catherine, health workers integrated into the health care system can mean the difference between life and death for the poorest and most vulnerable women and children.
“We don’t just treat women and children when they come to us but we empower them to be able to watch for and know the danger signs if their children fall sick. We encourage members of the community to use health facilities. Almost 90 per cent of women in my region give birth at home. If something goes wrong, there is very little we can do. By choosing to give birth in a health facility, we can support them and their baby before, during and after birth and ensure that they know the importance of family planning and good health practices like exclusive breastfeeding, immunisation and nutrition. Most importantly, we can promote male involvement in supporting these women and children.”
Globally, 3.5 million more health workers – including 2.5 million doctors, nurses, midwives and one million community health workers – need to be recruited, trained and deployed in the poorest countries by 2015 in order to achieve the health-related Millennium Development Goals, including a two-thirds reduction in child mortality.
Save the Children has contributed to the global call for health workers by supporting the training of 400,000 health workers in developing countries, including critical support to community health workers to deliver basic health services inside and outside of health centres.
While the commitment of the Australian Government and other Commonwealth governments to eradicate polio is enthusiastically welcome, we must remind them that a similar commitment to fund, train and retain health workers is urgently needed. Without sufficient numbers of health workers, quality health care services will remain beyond the reach of millions of women and children in Commonwealth nations.
Such an inequality among equal nations should no longer be accepted in 2011.