Delivering health care to infants in earthquake-stricken Japan

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By Mihoko Nakagawa

TOKYO, Japan, 25 April 2011 – “Learning my baby girl is in good health, I feel so relieved,” says Mariko Matsuno, holding her 5-month-old daughter in her arms. It’s the first time her infant has had a check-up since March’s devastating earthquake and tsunami.

“I was planning to take her to a hospital for a check-up. But then the earthquake struck, leaving us at a loss,” Ms. Matsuno says. UNICEF and the Japan Committee for UNICEF stepped into the breach, establishing a temporary clinic at a community health centre in Rikuzentakata City, Iwate Prefecture.

Temporary health clinics

Though it’s a cold and rainy afternoon, mothers have been bringing in their young children before the clinic’s scheduled opening time. “Feel free to share any concerns about your baby,” Tomoharu Ohki tells the mothers. “I would be happy to help you in any way I can.”

Mothers often choose to visit the same doctor as they can better check their baby’s growth. “I feel most comfortable to consult Dr. Ohki, the doctor I have known for a long time,” says Hiromi Wada, mother of 4-month-old Shuzo, and Hinata, 10. Since the earthquake, Shuzo has been crying during the night.

Ms. Wada has been anxious, particularly as power outages have left her unable to see her son’s face properly when she checks on him at night. “I, too, was worried about my little brother,” says Hinata, giving Shuzo a hug. Having visited their community-based doctor, both now feel reassured.

Determined health staff

Dr. Ohki is currently the only public paediatrician in Rikuzentakata City. Before the disaster, the number of doctors in this north-eastern region of Japan was already only half the national average. A paediatrician and five health workers were killed in the earthquake, casting a heavy toll on the already stretched health system.

For Dr. Ohki and the two remaining health workers, it has been a real challenge to resume the clinic’s vital work. His team, however, was determined. “I wanted to deliver this regular health service to mothers and babies because this helps us get back to normalcy,” says Dr. Ohki.

UNICEF and the Japan Committee for UNICEF have also been supporting local governments of other affected areas to deliver maternal and child health services. Medical teams of doctors, dentists, pharmacists and nutritionists have been visiting children and pregnant women at evacuation centres and temporary clinics.

“At the very initial phase, it is a matter of life or death, and we focus on emergency relief operations,” explains Osamu Kunii, a UNICEF doctor deployed from Somalia, who is serving as health adviser to Miyagi Prefecture. “Now the needs are shifting toward medium to long-term health services for so-called ‘disaster-vulnerable populations’, which include infants, pregnant women and the elderly.”

Rebuilding health services

A free help line has been set up by the Japan Committee for UNICEF and UNICEF in partnership with five breast-feeding organizations. Trained consultants now respond and give advice to concerned parents and guardians seven days a week on appropriate infant nutrition.

The Japan Committee for UNICEF and UNICEF have also been helping distribute nutrition supplements with partners, a particular need as prolonged stays at evacuation centres are resulting in insufficient or unbalanced diets.

Other initiatives to improve the nutritional status of those affected are also underway. “Together with the local government and other partners, we are striving to build back a better health system for mothers and children,” says Dr. Kunii.