UNICEF and EU save new-born lives in rural Ethiopia

By Efa Workineh, CBNC Project Officer, Save the Children, Ethiopia; Tadesse Bekele, Regional Programme Manager, Save the Children, Ethiopia; Hailemariam Legesse, Health Specialist, UNICEF Ethiopia; Asheber Gaym, Health Specialist, UNICEF Ethiopia  

Ginde Beret
Elias with mother Shure after completion of his new-born sepsis treatment provided at the village health post ©SCI/2015/Efa Workineh

Abuna Gindeberet Woreda is one of the eighteen woredas (districts) found in West Shoa Zone, Oromia Regional State, 182 km west of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.

Baby Elias Suyum Belacho was born in Guro Furto health centre in Gartoke Kebele (sub district) of Abuna Gindeberet Woreda on September 20 2015.  His mother, Shure Negasa and father, Suyum Belacho took good care of Elias, the fourth born in the family, even prior to his birth.  During her pregnancy, Shure attended three Ante Natal Care (ANC) visits at the Guro Furto health centre. Unfortunately, she had not received the required post-natal visit schedule following her delivery.

When Elias was three weeks old, he attended the routine community based new-born care assessment provided as part of the community based new-born care programme of the national Health Extension Programme (HEP) package. (The HEP is a community health programme covering the whole of Ethiopia provided by two female community health workers (health extension workers) working at rural health posts, at present over 38,000 health extension workers are providing services in over 16,000 health posts across Ethiopia. The community based new-born care programme (CBNC) is one of the key public health interventions provided by HEP through extensive partner support. UNICEF is the major supporter of CBNC scale up in Ethiopia). Emushe Abebe, the health extension worker providing CBNC noted that Elias’ respiration rate was found to be 72 breaths per minutes in two counts; much higher than the upper limit of 60 expected at his age. During the assessment, Emushe asked Shure if she has noted any other symptoms that Elias has been showing recently. Shure explained that Elias had been coughing for the last two days. Thanks to her Community Based New-born Care (CBNC) training, the health extension worker correctly diagnosed Elias’ condition as new-born sepsis; a potentially lethal advanced infection in new-borns. In addition, she found out that Elias was underweight, which was caused by not enough breastfeeding.  As per her CBNC training, she classified Elias’s condition to be very severe. Shure was not aware that she had to breastfeed at least eight times per day and because she did not realise that Elias was seriously sick, she never reached out for medical assistance.

After counselling by the health extension worker, Shure agreed to start the treatment at home immediately and to continue taking Elias to the health post. 48 hours after initiating the standardised (Chart Booklet) treatment with gentamicin and amoxicillin antibiotics, the HEW assessed the status of the child and found that he was rapidly improving. By now he was physically stable:  he showed a lower breathing rate of 48/minute and he was breastfed more than 10 times a day. Following the seven days’ full course treatment, Elias completely recovered from his illness.

Elias’ mother Shure Negasa, who was not aware of her child being in life threatening condition, has promised to seriously take care for her new-born child and other children. From now onwards she will seek health care when ever needed and she will teach her neighbour’s what she experienced.

When Ethiopia along with 196 other countries signed the Millennium Declaration in New York in 2000, maternal and child health situation was bad for the majority of the population. Under five mortality rate – number of children dying before their fifth birthday from 1000 born alive- in 1990 (the beginning of measurements for the MDGs) was 222; one of the highest in the world. Many were sceptical that the country would achieve the targeted reduction of two thirds of the 1990 levels by 2015. Against all odds, the country has achieved child health target of the millennium development goals MDG 4 three years ahead of 2015 by reducing the 1990 child mortality rate to less than 68 child deaths per 1000 live births.

Clear health policy and strong implementation supported by coordinated international partnership; a large scale community health programme targeting rural villages through the health extension programme; sustained investments in health and sustained economic growth are among the reasons for this success story.

Highly appreciable as the improvements in child health are, an under five mortality rate of 68 translates to the unacceptable number of over 200,000 child deaths annually. More than 43 per cent of these child deaths occur during the first 28 days following child birth (the neonatal period) the majority occurring in the few days following birth. Breathing difficulties; premature birth and new-born infections/sepsis are responsible for the majority of neonatal deaths and most are preventable or easily treatable with currently available medical care. Access to health care is nevertheless essential to obtain the benefits of these lifesaving interventions. For the tens of thousands of new-borns born at home and far from health facilities, accessing these lifesaving interventions have been largely impossible.

To overcome this formidable challenge to access key new-born health interventions, Ethiopia in collaboration with its major child health partners including UNICEF has adopted novel public health interventions of ICCM/CBNC (Integrated community case management of childhood illnesses/ community based new-born care). ICCM/CBNC interventions rely on task shifting of key child health interventions responsible for majority of child deaths to community health workers who receive training on detection and treatment of key childhood illnesses at home or at village clinics (health posts). They also timely refer new-borns and older children with severe illnesses to higher level care.

The EU-ESDE (European Union- Enhancing Skilled Delivery in Ethiopia) project, allocated Euro 42 million for a three-year support to maternal and new-born health to Ethiopia from 2014-2016. The EU is one of the major partners for the national scale up of ICCM/CBNC programme in Ethiopia. Since its inception in 2013, the ICCM/CBNC programme has rapidly scaled up to increase availability of CBNC services in 75 per cent of the total health posts in the country. Key interventions of the programme include training and mentoring of health extension workers on key skills of detections of new-borns and infants with illness through clear symptoms and signs and provision of essential interventions including provision of antibiotics to sick new-borns.  

Emushe Abebe, the HEW who provided the critical intervention that saved the life of Elias is one of the 2500 health extension workers who received training through EU-ESDE (European Union- Enhancing Skilled Delivery in Ethiopia) project support. She is saving lives of many children like Elias, and teaches mothers like Shure the importance of seeking health care.

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