Develop(ing) IV: Child Health

Inspired by time in Ghana.

By all rights, I had an excellent childhood. Even when my father worked in an industry hit hard by the dotcom crash and would spend months looking for a new job, only to find another in a company with no foundations, my brother and I never went without.  There was always plentiful food on the table, a comfortable house to live in and family activities on the weekend.

I wasn't the healthiest of children. There was never anything particularly wrong with me but my mother would happily tell you of the many nights I kept the household (and the neighbours) awake with my shrill screams all night long. I was never a good sleeper, constantly irritated by allergies and unable to eat many of the foods my parents attempted to feed me. Coupled with what my doctor called "stretchy joints" and a low tolerance for pain, I spent a lot of my childhood wrapped in bandages, in X-Ray rooms and visiting the GP clinic.

I'm one of the lucky ones.

I have access to Universal health care. I can go to the GP any time of day or night and be bulk-billed. I can go to the hospital and have no worries about huge expenses to follow. My parents placed a high value on health, meaning that I went to the annual dental check ups (a good thing too - my parents always joked that I was so faulty that I should be "sent back to the factory") and, when my eyesight didn't seem as good as it used to be, I was promptly taken to the optometrist.  I cannot remember a time when I needed to see a doctor and was not afforded that right.

There are millions in this world who aren't so lucky.

Ghana has a relatively high child mortality rate with 69 out of every 1000 children not making it to their fifth birthday. High on the list of culprits sits malaria.  Ghana is faced with 90% of its malaria (page 122) being the P. falciparum strain, one of the most deadly. Falciparum, as we learnt in a haematology lecture has the shortest incubation period (5.5-7 days pre-erythrocyte; 9-10 days pre-patent) and while it does not relapse, it has irregular fever cycles and is the hardest for the body to fight.  Falciparum is rapidly fatal if left untreated because it breaks down blood cells, which then clog capillaries in organs, reducing or completely obstructing oxygenation of essential tissues.  It can quickly and easily destroy upwards of 30% of red blood cells.  This strain of malaria is most dangerous to children under five and pregnant women. With these sorts of statistics, it's obvious something should be done.

The question is, what?

While malaria prophylaxis (preventative treatment) is available, it's too expensive to be in the reach of most Ghanaians. I did not see, at any point, mosquito spray or nets available for sale. Nor is malaria treatment easy or affordable once infected. One day, one of the optometrists looked a little under the weather. Being a naive Australian, I asked him if he had a cold, to which he responded, "no, it's just Malaria, it comes around when I'm stressed."  I was shocked that something as serious as malaria was treated with such little concern. Reflecting for a moment, it made perfect sense. In a country where malaria is endemic, undue fear would only serve to make life difficult. It is a certainty rather than a risk for many Ghanaians.  So how do you convince people to take malaria and its treatment seriously?

Check out this video by the Ghana Black Stars. In a nation obsessed with football, campaigns by their football teams make real change. Constant advertising on billboards are educating people about the importance of prompt malaria treatment when infection arises. Aid programs have brought with them mosquito nets. It's now a matter of convincing the people that these programs can really work.

If the question is how to reduce child mortality in Ghana (and much of sub-saharan Africa), the answer is through preventing and rapid treatment of malaria.  Children everywhere deserve as lucky of a childhood as me.


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