Jasmine is a community health volunteer in the Bola District of Bangladesh. Trained by Save the Children and on the front lines of health care, she was able to diagnose baby Nadim with severe pneumonia and refer him to the hospital for treatment before it was too late.
But every year more than seven and a half million children die before their fifth birthday, and more than 350,000 women die of pregnancy-related causes. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable. Even more, most mothers and children don’t need to see a doctor in order to survive – properly trained frontline community health workers such as Jasmine, and midwives, can diagnose and treat many conditions.
But here’s the catch: the World Health Organization estimates there is a shortage of at least one million frontline health workers in the developing world. And many of the health workers on the ground right now are not adequately trained or equipped to deliver basic lifesaving care to their communities.
Today, fifteen leading global health organizations including Save the Children, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and World Vision launched the Frontline Health Workers Coalition to bridge that gap. Their goal: to add one million health care workers where they’re needed most. The coalition is calling on the U.S. government to train and support 250,000 new workers, as well as lend support to those already in place but in need of additional training and resources.
“Around the world, addressing the kind of basic killers of children, for example, pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and the problems that parents face, including moms who die in pregnancy and childbirth, women and men affected by HIV/AIDS. All of those people need one absolute thing to improve their condition. And that is having a health worker close to them,” Mary Beth Powers, chair of the coalition, said at the launch.
Indeed, frontline community health workers are often the first and only link to care for millions in the developing world — especially those living in rural areas. Studies have shown that community health workers can have a huge and lasting impact. This past June, the United Nations Population Fund called for more and better trained midwives to address the maternal and infant mortality crisis that affects much of the developing world, and a recent study in the medical journal The Lancet shows that children treated with simple antibiotics in their own homes by frontline community health workers are more likely to recover from severe pneumonia than those referred to health facilities.
“The world has experienced dramatic declines in deaths thanks largely to the care provided by these local health heroes,” Powers said. “But despite this progress, nearly 21,000 children still die every day, most from preventable causes, and 1,000 girls and women die each day in pregnancy and childbirth. Investing in the technologies and medicines to prevent and treat diseases is important, but insufficient. Simply put, without health workers to deliver the life-saving medicines and information, there is no pathway to good health.”
We know that lack of access to even the most basic antibiotics and simplest treatments puts millions needlessly at risk every day. Frontline community health workers and midwives are a proven commodity. The coalition certainly has its work cut out for itself. But what is the world waiting for?
Take a look at this video to see the impact frontline community health workers can have:
Photo credit: Jeff Holt