Campaign attacks high child mortality rate

The Angolan government is boosting its efforts to slash the country's high child mortality statistics with a week-long campaign to encourage three million children to access basic health care.

Supported by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the 'health days' are taking place across the country in a bid to immunise newborns and children under five against some of the biggest child-killers.

Angola has one of the world's worst child mortality rates, with one in four failing to live beyond their fifth birthday, according to UNICEF.

Malaria is one of the biggest causes of death, but diarrhoeal diseases, acute respiratory infections, measles and neonatal tetanus - all of which can be prevented by immunisation or an improvement in health and hygiene practices - also claim many lives.

"The dramatic mortality rate ... is a consequence of insufficient access to, and poor quality of, health services, as well as inadequate family care practices among urban and rural communities," UNICEF said in a statement.

To encourage Angolans to adopt healthy practices and the habit of attending clinics, the ministry of health and UNICEF provided municipal health centres in all 164 of Angola's municipalities with extra supplies to immunise, deworm, and supplement Vitamin A to a targeted three million children.

Around 5,000 health activists have been trained to support the process and spread the word, while the government and UNICEF have set up temporary and mobile healthcare facilities in remote areas.

Some 350,000 women aged between 15 and 45 will also be vaccinated against tetanus, while all parents accompanying their children will receive hygiene and health education materials.

In the Luanda municipality of Samba, a 15-minute drive south of the capital, news of the immunisation programme has been spreading fast, thanks to word of mouth and an intensive two-week media promotion.

"We were talking about it at home because I heard the advertisements on radio and television," said 18-year-old Iya, waiting patiently in line with her daughter Beoma for her tetanus jab. "They told us that vaccination was important to protect our children against illness, so I thought I should come along."

Satisfied with the turnout, Samba's Municipal Administrator, Eduardo Costa Gabriel, proudly displayed charts showing the immunisation rates since the first day of the scheme.

Although the Samba municipality is not one of the country's poorest - most people live in simple brick homes instead of houses built of corrugated iron or other flimsy materials - it suffers from poor medical coverage, with just one state doctor for every 100,000 people and private medical practitioners beyond the financial reach of most.

"This campaign is really welcome. We do not have enough doctors - only four or five state doctors for an area of 345 square kilometres and a population of 450,000," Gabriel said.

With the medical service so stretched, routine immunisations rarely happen. But on Monday alone, almost 1,500 children in the municipality received Vitamin A supplements, around 1,400 were given deworming treatment, and a further 300 were immunised against polio, diphtheria and measles.

"Campaigns like this one have a much greater impact in terms of improving the health and quality of life of the population. Because people are not aware, this programme is important to mobilise people and increase their knowledge," Gabriel said.

Last year the Angolan government pledged to halve the child mortality rate and reduce the number of maternal deaths during childbirth by 30 percent by 2008.

During Angola's 27 years of civil conflict, the provision of healthcare was confined to emergency campaigns by aid agencies in the field; in peace-time the challenge is to get parents into the habit of visiting a health centre.

"The aim of these children's health days is ... to slowly create a bond between community members and their health service, so that seeking health advice and care becomes part of the parents' routine," said Guy Clarysse, UNICEF Health Officer in Angola.

"Parents need to be trained in early detection of symptoms, to timely seek care for their children and understand that hygiene practices in the homes can often change the fate of children," he pointed out.

The intervention includes registering children and issuing them with health cards to ensure immunisation follow-up.

This year and next the health weeks will alternate with polio immunisation and measles campaigns; from 2007 onwards, similar weeks will be repeated every six months, UNICEF said.

The initiative is being funded by the British, US, Canadian and Swedish governments, with support from the World Health Organisation and various local and international NGOs.