Jeannette died last Tuesday. She was 10, and lived in Rwanda.
I believe she did not have to die. Not only because we knew how to treat her, but because we know how to stop the terrible toll disease takes on children throughout Africa.
Jeanette died of kidney failure. A local doctor was paying for her dialysis out of his own pocket. Then, a Canadian benefactor paid for her treatment while trying to arrange a transplant in Toronto. Even though Jeannette received care far beyond what is typical for her very poor community, fatal complications ultimately set in.
After four years working on public health in Rwanda, I know the numbers. Jeannette was just one of thousands of children who died in Africa last week. Nearly one in five babies born in Rwanda doesn’t make it to age five. In the time it takes you to hear this sentence, another child under five will have died somewhere in the world. It’s overwhelming, but please keep listening.
A few years ago, a young boy named Samson came down with strep throat. His family did not have the money—less than a dollar—needed to buy medicine, and he developed rheumatic heart disease. Samson, however, lives in Mayange, a site that Rwanda’s government chose in 2005 as the site for the Millennium Villages Project, a 10-country initiative based at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The project team, with donor support, managed to get him to South Africa for heart surgery. Now, Samson is home, adjusting to being a normal 14-year-old and back in school after years of absence.
When I was born in Pittsburgh in 1961, I had a strep infection too. I weighed only 6 pounds and wouldn’t eat. I was put in an incubator, my infection was treated routinely, and within weeks I was well enough to go home. Since I was lucky enough to be born in America to a stable home with all the health care and anything else I might have needed, I lived.
When I first walked into Mayange’s health center, it had almost no medicine, staff, equipment–-or patients. I now know how quickly things can change. Quality of care has improved and community health insurance coverage has expanded. When 20-cent co-payments were eliminated at the health center in February, the number of patient visits soared: that small fee had been keeping sick people away. Now the center is bustling every day with people seeking and receiving care. Free insecticide-treated bed nets have been distributed in the community and malaria cases have declined significantly. Child mortality has dropped so much that people in Mayange tell visitors, “Our children don’t die anymore.”
I believe it’s outrageous that Jeannette and Samson’s lives had to depend on the generosity of rich outsiders when their illnesses likely could have been prevented with good, basic health care. We should recognize the responsibility we all carry as a result of our privilege. We must act. Get informed. Get engaged. Support organizations that are solving the challenges of getting medicine and care to the people who need it, at a price they can afford—even if that price is zero.
It’s heartbreaking when a child like Jeannette dies, but it’s exhilarating when a child like Samson is transformed from a sick kid into just another teenager. We can make a difference. We just have to decide that it’s time.
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