Mother and Child Health Week brings health services to children and mothers in Pakistan

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UMERKOT, Pakistan, 16 December 2009 - Pneumonia is one of the main causes of death in children under five-years-old in Pakistan. Sidori Churon is one mother that wanted to prevent such a death from happening to her child. She and her four-month-old baby, Isar, attended a health session designed to teach mothers how to spot the signs of pneumonia in their small children.

For Sidori, the challenges of ensuring the health of her new baby are all too real. Just 16-years-old, Sidori has already gone through four pregnancies, with two ending in miscarriage and one in the death of the baby just days after its birth.

Sidori is one of over 250,000 people - a quarter of the population of the Umerkot District in Sindh Province - who do not have access to a primary health care clinic or a health worker. She and her fellow villagers belong to the country's small Hindu population, and this health session held in her tiny village marked the first time she had had the opportunity to learn about modern care practices for children.

To address the lack of access to basic health services for mothers like Sidori, UNICEF supports the Government's Mother and Child Health Weeks, which enable the delivery of a package of high-impact, low-cost child survival interventions. During the initiative, children, especially in rural areas, receive immunizations and de-worming medicines. Mothers are counselled on household practices like breastfeeding and basic hygiene, and on how to identify and treat pneumonia and diarrhoea, which could potentially prevent thousands of deaths.

The initiative brought to Sidori's neighbourhood critical doses of BCG, pentavalent and polio vaccine for her child, as well as the first dose of a tetanus vaccination for herself.

Training community resource workers

Due to the lack of female health workers in the district, one of Sidori's neighbours, Dahi Bheel, was tasked with running the health session.

Dahi was trained to be a community resource worker by one of UNICEF's implementing partners, and she initially agreed to participate in the initiative "to improve women's and children's health, since there is no health facility in this area."

As with many mothers living in this semi-desert zone near the Indian border, Dahi has seen countless children suffer from illnesses such as diarrhoea and pneumonia. Water is scarce here, and villagers must store rainwater for drinking. The nearest health facility is more than 40 kilometres away and no public transport is available.

But, little by little, Dahi has seen Mother and Child Health Weeks start to have an impact: "Now, many women know about diarrhoea, pneumonia and the importance of handwashing. And it is making a difference in the health of the children," she said.

'We can save thousands of lives'

Umerkot is one of the most disadvantaged areas of Sindh Province. Over 12 children out of 100 die here before the age of five - a higher rate than in urban areas of the province or in the country as a whole. A majority of these deaths occur in the first four weeks of life. Pakistan as a whole has the eighth highest neonatal mortality rate in the world, largely attributable to the lack of access to quality health services.

"Pneumonia is a seasonal calamity, taking the lives of 52,000 Pakistani children every year," explained UNICEF Country Representative for Pakistan Martin Mogwanja. "If mothers know how to prevent pneumonia and care for ill children, then we could save many of these lives."

About 15 million children under five years of age and 3.4 million pregnant women are being targeted during this Mother and Child Health Week, which is an initiative of the Ministry of Health that is supported by UNICEF and its partners.

During the first week of November, 90,000 Lady Health Workers and 3,500 supervisors held health sessions for families, and especially mothers, in 134 districts.

"We have seen through our work in other countries like Ghana, as well as in Pakistan, that we can save thousands of lives and improve the health of millions at very low cost through Mother and Child Health Weeks," said Mr. Mogwanja.