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David's blog: UNICEF improving child health and survival in Tanzania

UNICEF Canada President and CEO David Morley reports from Tanazania

Mbeya is a city in Tanzania and it is beautiful. Lush, green forested mountains surround a fertile plain. Lots of maize and other crops are grown in this southwest part of Tanzania, and yet many children are at risk for various health issues, namely undernourishment.

“Parents work all day in the field,” says Sipora, a UNICEF health specialist here. “They don’t earn much and they’re too tired in the evenings to do all they want to for their children.”

Special UNICEF project in Mbeya: improving the health systems

UNICEF has been investing in the health systems here in Mbeya, and that is why we went to visit the Ruanda Health Centre.

The Health Centre is a bustling, crowded place – overcrowded, really. The waiting area is filled up with pregnant women and mothers with newborns. This is the first line of defence in child survival – people come here for maternal and neonatal health checks and ante-natal care. Mothers are checked for anemia, HIV and other potential maladies. The big waiting room is filled with people, and if a woman brings her husband she gets to go to the front of the line – a good incentive to get more fathers involved.

Tanzania experiencing a child survival revolution

Services for pregnant women and children under five are free in Tanzania. That is another reason this place is so crowded – and it also helps to explain how such a poor country can have an immunization rate of 89 per cent. Another huge contribution to the child survival revolution.

As we drive to the District Hospital, I ask my Tanzanian colleagues about civil war: How has Tanzania, with its countless dialects and ethnic groups, remained peaceful when so many of its immediate neighbours – Mozambique, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and, most recently, Burundi – suffered civil strife?

“Our first president,” Ezekiel told me, “put uniting Tanzanians ahead of economic growth. He chose Swahili as our national language and built bridges amongst our people and that has served us well.”

Overcrowded hospitals still offer better chance to live

Cases too difficult for the Ruanda Health Centre are referred to the Mbeya Regional Referral Hospital. Like Ruanda, Mbeya Hospital is clean and well run. The cold room for life-saving vaccines works and there’s a backup generator too. The Hospital is housed in a series of bungalows and a group of local businesses and citizens formed the “Friends of Mbeya Hospital.” Last year, they raised enough money to build the covered walkways that run between the buildings so that patients and staff don’t get wet when there is a tropical downpour – and I can assure you that here in Mbeya, when it rains it really pours.

Here, the patient cases are a bit more complex. “The children have the usual diseases – pneumonia, malaria, HIV,” says Ezekiel. And that comment gives a hint of the challenges they face.

The Zonal Hospital takes the most challenging cases. It has a well-functioning Neonatal Intensive Care Unit where, tiny, premature babies are in incubators and under heat lamps. Even though they are often two to an incubator, this still gives them a better chance to live.

How birth certificates provide groundwork for child protection in Mbeya

When these babies survive, there is birth registration. In Canada, we take birth certificates for granted – but they are important tools in child protection.

Birth certificates can help with:

  • Proving a child’s age
  • Avoiding an illegal forced marriage
  • Enabling the child to go to school
  • Helping the child get access to other services
  • Protecting children from child trafficking

But in Tanzania, only eight per cent of children have birth certificates.

Technology can help us achieve greater safety for children. We have started a pilot project here in Mbeya using mobile technology and registering children in health facilities to streamline the process of registering births. The uptake has been remarkable – the number of officially registered births has grown from 11 per cent to 60 per cent in this district, and so we are rolling this out to other parts of the country.

UNICEF working to create lasting improvements in the local health systems

Our work here in Mbeya typifies the best of UNICEF. We are working together with the government to strengthen the whole health system – providing supplies, offering training, running demonstration projects and helping develop policies to ensure health budgets are spent wisely. This way our work has a national impact. This way our work will be create change for children that lasts.

These hospitals in Mbeya are remarkable. Yes, they are overcrowded. Yes, they need more help. But after visiting more than 25 government hospitals and clinics around Africa, I must say that I have never seen any quite like these with clean, functioning equipment, and committed, competent staff doing their utmost – and succeeding – to save children’s lives.