12 December 2007

Mali: Health Groups Rally to Improve Children's Health

Blog

Bamako — Through this blog, Dr. Steven Phillips, ExxonMobil's Medical Director for Global Issues and Projects, will share his observations from the Republic of Mali, where he is part of the UN Foundation's observation team for the country's largest ever public health event.

From December 13 to 19, Mali is conducting a national integrated child health campaign targeting more than 2.6 million children under five as recipients of five health interventions: measles and polio vaccinations, long-lasting insecticide treated nets, de-worming medication, and vitamin A.

In addition to ExxonMobil, key partners include the Measles Initiative (The United Nations Foundation, WHO, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, and the American Red Cross), the Canadian Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative, USAID, CDC, Malaria No More, Nothing But Nets, Major League Soccer, National Basketball Association, and numerous local non-governmental, faith-based organizations, and Malian government agencies.

Day 1: Bamako, Mali

We are not yet into our descent into Bamako, capital of Mali, and we have been flying over an uninterrupted, gently undulating golden carpet for the past 45 minutes. As we begin our descent, the featureless monotonic vastness gives way to a blotchy canvas of white and gray. Finally a stark undulating ribbon of blue breaks the monotony. A short time later the hazy outlines of geometric man-made structures finally appear. Thus the transition from the Sahara to the Sahel and to the Niger River and landing at the Bamako airport. Our global health team to observe Mali's first ever integrated child health campaign has arrived.

Based on this aerial topographic introduction to Mali, it's hard to imagine that malaria would be a problem here. The culprit turns out to be the Niger River. As it snakes and bisects the entire width of the country, it becomes the source of enormous pockets and lagoons of standing water and forms a huge inland delta – ideal mosquito breeding grounds. This is what makes malaria the number one killer of children under the age of five in Mali.

Mali ranks 173 out of 177 countries in the most recent Human Development Index. It is a landlocked country in West Africa five times the size of Great Britain with a population of 12 million. Eighty percent of the people live on less than $1 a day and the average life expectancy is 46 years, with literacy rates in the 20-25 percent range.

Under the government of Mali's leadership about two dozen in-country and global health groups have been planning the campaign for over a year. Now over a period of a few days – December 13-19, 2007 – this campaign will deliver a package of five life-saving health interventions to up to 95 percent of all children under five in the entire country.

An estimated 2.8 million children will receive measles and polio vaccinations, vitamin A, and de-worming medication. About 2.1 million living in malarious regions will also receive long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets (LLINS). The total cost of the campaign is estimated to be $13-15 million and is borne by the government of Mali, the Canadian Red Cross, the United Nations Foundation's Nothing But Nets campaign, Malaria No More, a U.S. NGO, and many others.

The backbone of the campaign is a concerted social mobilization of all villages in the country, with mothers bringing their children to about 2,000 designated health posts to receive the interventions.

Prior to 2003, these "mass measles integration campaigns" did not include LLINS in their health intervention package. But in that year, the results of a new study showing the cost-effectiveness of piggybacking bed net distribution on to the measles vaccination platform was established in a pilot setting in Ghana. The study was conducted by a team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WHO, and the Canadian Red Cross and co-sponsored by ExxonMobil.

This study helped to turn the tide with major international donor agencies, and the "Measles-Malaria Partnership" was born. Since 2003 this partnership of international health agencies has delivered 29 million bed nets to vulnerable children and pregnant mothers throughout Africa. Now it is broadly acknowledging that the campaign package of high-impact interventions will help save lives and give children a better chance to develop and thrive. And in a country where one out of five infants do not survive and two out five children do not make their fifth birthday, this campaign should make a great contribution to child survival. Bed nets alone should decrease child mortality by 2007.

After a day of excellent campaign briefings by the Ministry of Health, the Canadian Red Cross, USAID and others, our observer group was awed by the magnitude of work that had gone into the planning of this landmark week.

Tomorrow we trace the logistics of bed nets from an Asian factory to a remote Malian village. And we also meet with Mali's President Touré to launch the campaign.

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