Helping health workers save Ethiopia’s youngest children

By Demissew Bizuwerk

Kejelo, Tiro AFETA, Oromia, 14 June 2018: Inside the small room of Kejelo health post, health extension worker Amelework Getachew carefully monitors her stock of medicines stacked on a small wooden shelf. She checks to make sure that an Oral Rehydration Salt (ORS), a fluid replacement used to prevent and treat diarrhoea, Amoxicillin Dispersible Tablet and Gentamicin injection, antibiotics used to treat children with pneumonia and serious bacterial infections, are available in good quantity. She cross checks the numbers on each bin card and the actual quantities on the shelf. “I can’t afford to run out of these medicines,” says Amelework, pointing towards a stock of sachets of ORS and packs of amoxicillin tablets and gentamicin injections. “They are lifesaving.”

After Amelework is done taking inventory, she collects her essential job-aids for home visits and attends to five-month-old Aziza in her home as part of her routine house-to-house visit. This way, Amelework makes sure that pregnant women and newborn babies get health follow-ups.

When Aziza was only 45 days old, she suffered from pneumonia, the common killer of infants in Ethiopia. “I was so worried when my child was sick,” says Rawda, Aziza’s mother. “She was struggling to breathe and had it not been for ‘doctor’, my child would not have survived.”

“I was so worried when my child was sick. She was struggling to breathe

Amelework, whose name also means “a golden character,” is a committed health worker. Her nine-year journey as a health extension worker started in a remote village of Kereyu Dodo when she was given the daunting task of changing people’s attitudes on a range of health-related misconceptions.  It wasn’t easy for her to convince people to dig toilets or use bed nets to keep them safe from malaria. “They used to call us names like the ‘toilet controllers’ or ‘bed net checkers,” she remembers.

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Amelework examines five months old Aziza. When Aziza was 45 days old, she suffered from Pneumonia. But now she is growing up healthy. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2018/Demissew Bizuwerk

But Amelework is now dubbed ‘doctor’, a name bestowed to her out of love and respect by the village women.  She is key to the livelihoods of the community, saving mothers and newborns including little Aziza in the small village of Kejelo.

Although Ethiopia has managed to significantly reduce its under-five child mortality, newborn deaths have declined at a much slower pace.  Twenty-nine newborn babies die out of every 1,000 live births from preventable causes such as complications due to prematurity, birth asphyxia, and infections like sepsis, and pneumonia[1]. Newborn deaths also account for a greater and growing share of all deaths among children under 5; almost 44 per cent.

Supported by UNICEF, the Government of Ethiopia introduced the Community Based Newborn Care (CBNC) strategy in 2012. CBNC aims to empower health extension workers, such as Amelework, with skills to provide maternal and child health services during pregnancy, childbirth and postnatally. Heath extension workers are also trained to identify and treat newborns with severe bacterial infections or sepsis where referral is not possible. They provide treatment for sick children both at the health post and in houses during their regular visits.

“The treatment we are providing is free of charge,” says Amelework. “This is encouraging mothers to bring their children early when they are sick.  It is also helping us to save young children from serious illnesses like pneumonia.”

Amelework is trained to provide CBNC services by JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc/ The Last Ten Kilometers Project (JSI/L10K), which is implementing the programme with technical and financial support from UNICEF.  She also gets constant support and follow-up from the CBNC supervision team who regularly visit her health post to make sure that she is applying the standard operating procedures.

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Wosen Darge, the CBNC Regional Technical Officer from JSI/L10K supports Amelework with regular visits to her health post. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2018/Demissew Bizuwerk

“We train and support Amelework to deliver her very important work by effectively identifying sick children in the village during her regular immunization outreach work and when she is providing house-to-house postnatal care,” says Wosen Darge, the CBNC Regional Technical Officer from JSI/L10K.  “We also monitor and evaluate her records to ensure key information is recorded and stored in the treatment book.”

Amelework is also provided with guidance and support on supply management. She keeps track of her medical supplies to avoid shortages of crical drugs that she needs for immediate use.

“Nothing is more fulfilling than seeing a mother’s happy face when her child is recovering from such illnesses”

UNICEF is supporting the scaling up of CBNC services with funds from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation. Working in coordination with the Ministry of Health, it is expected that the positive experiences observed in villages like Kejelo will be expanded to pastoralist areas.

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Amelework is the indispensable medical person for Kejelo village mothers and children. She is dubbed ‘doctor’ by the local women for saving their children. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2018/Demissew Bizuwerk

A humble hard worker such as Amelework embodies Ethiopia’s hope to end preventable newborn and child deaths within this generation. “Nothing is more fulfilling than seeing a mother’s happy face when her child is recovering from such illnesses,” she says, “I am a mother myself and I know the feeling.”

Aziza is growing up healthy, her mother’s wish is to see her daughter becoming a ‘doctor’, like Amelework. “She [Amelework] saved my child’s life and I want my daughter to also do the same when she grows up,” says Rawda, with eyes full of hope to see a bright future for her baby daughter.

[1] EDHS 2016