HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsSave our children, save their mothers

Save our children, save their mothers

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From July 19 to 27, Uganda hosts the 15th Ordinary Session of the Summit of the African Union (AU) under the theme, “Maternal, Infant and Child Health and development in Africa”.
Of the 53 African heads of state gathering in Kampala, only one of them, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, has first hand experience of the issues on the agenda. She is a mother of four sons. Two of her sons were born in 1957, the first was born in January and the second in December and and I am convinced she is among the few who understand the issues on the table than anyone else at the Summit.
They meet in the full knowledge that they are presiding over the death of millions African babies a year. The majority of these babies die within the first month of life, others in the first 24 hours after birth due to preventable causes such as childbirth complications, preterm birth and neonatal infections. Sadly this is a painful journey that African women have to walk alone, the pain hardly understood by men in positions of power.
Even this year when such important issues are on the table there is only one female voice among 52 men plus the Muammar al-Gaddafi and Bingu wa Mutharika invitees from the Caribbean.
Accessible postnatal care and very basic, inexpensive health services can eliminate most of the continent’s 4,4 million annual deaths of children under five years and 265 000 maternal deaths but resourcing the public health sector is not their priority.
Almost all of these deaths of children under five are caused by pneumonia, measles, diarrhoea, malaria, HIV and Aids, or neonatal causes. For children born into the poorest communities, common childhood infections, often complicated by malnutrition, can be a death sentence because of inadequate or inaccessible healthcare.
Sadly, it is only women that give birth, it is only women that die while giving life, and still it is men in Kampala who will make the decisions. After the recent Uganda bombing, Kampala was quick to announce their capability to send 2 000 more troops to Somalia. But this is a country where 24 000 children die every day as a result of malaria, diarrhoea, malnutrition and respiratory illness.
Malaria kills about 110 000 people, especially pregnant women and children below the age of five. These harrowing statistics don’t warrant a quick reaction as with the bombing in Uganda’s view. Isn’t it forlorn that the same money that was supposed to save a few more children and a few more mothers will be sent to Somalia?
This callousness is demonstrated by the relegation of the public health system to charities and development agencies.
Today, Africa’s public health system is in intensive care unit due to lack of government funding when other disease-specific donor funded sectors are bubbling with money. Donors and charities have been allowed to drive the health agenda at the expense of our children and women.
For instance, there is so much money in HIV and Aids, TB and malaria sector. While it is true that pregnant women can also suffer from malaria, they could be HIV-positive, they could be malnourished, could be poor or could have a lot of other children, it is also true that pregnant women may not be part of these and still require basic maternal care. Wouldn’t it make sense that all these are integrated at one well equipped, staffed and resourced community health centre without giving emphasis on one problem than the other? That’s how far our public health system has been ruined by negligent African leaders.
Meaningful development of a country is dependent on the health of its people, especially women and children. Losing 4,4 million children and 265 000 mothers to maternal deaths per– year due to preventable causes while our military budgets are bubbling with money is scenically unacceptable.
A grieving nation cannot be productive as much as a grieving military can’t win a war. A lot of family time and money is spent on funeral arrangements, which could have been used for other productive purposes. In addition to losing a future generation of labour and leadership, funerals for 4, 4 million is just colossal amount of production time.
Despite having a 70% donor funded national budget, Malawi has proven that its actually possible to save children and their mothers’ lives. They have achieved significant progress in reducing the under-five mortality rate from 210 per 1 000 live births in 1990 to 111 per 1 000 in 2007.
If this momentum is sustained, Malawi could attain its target for Millennium Development Goal 4. We do not need a major technological breakthrough to crack this problem; we just need to make the right decisions. One can only hope that as Zimbabwe gets the green light from Kimberley Process to sell its diamonds, perhaps the estimated $1,7 billion worth of diamonds mined from Chiadzwa stockpiled somewhere will help ease the lives of our children and their mothers.
A 2009 Unicef report shows a gloomy 20% increase in the mortality of children under the age of five years in Zimbabwe as they succumb to the HIV and Aids pandemic and pneumonia. It also adds that half of women in Zimbabwe’s poor rural areas were also giving birth at home, with high hospital fees proving a barrier to women accessing obstetric services. While these statistics are just figures to the politicians, to my sister and millions other women, it means death threatening pain and worse still loss of a child which leaves an indelible pain in their hearts. We love our child, that’s why we make them.
l Tapiwa Gomo is a developmental consultant based in Pretoria, RSA

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