Eric Frazier

Millions of children are needlessly dying. Here’s how we can stop it.

By Eric Frazier

War, poverty and disease have sent African and Middle Eastern immigrants flooding into Europe, many hoping to give their children a safer, healthier life.
War, poverty and disease have sent African and Middle Eastern immigrants flooding into Europe, many hoping to give their children a safer, healthier life. Getty Images

Two decades have passed since I traveled to Honduras with a group of Charleston-based medical missionaries, but I will never forget the limp, unresponsive baby a desperate couple brought to the team’s makeshift clinic.

We were in a remote mountain village called Proteccion. To reach it, our bus left the city of San Pedro Sula, forded a rocky stream and inched along about four hours of narrow, unpaved mountain switchback roads.

Hospitals and professional medical care were so far away that people walked for days to get to the clinic, which ran for a week out of the village’s school building.

That day, the medical staff placed the baby on a table. The doctor called for a hand-pumped resuscitation tool called an Ambu bag. He covered the baby’s nose and mouth with it, then squeezed the bulb, calling out instructions as he methodically pumped air into the child’s lungs.

That’s the last thing I saw before the door swung shut.

When the nurse re-emerged minutes later, she stood in front of the door a long moment, staring into the distance. Her face, her shoulders, her eyes – every part of her sagged.

The baby died, she finally whispered.

Cause of death? Diarrhea and dehydration.

I was baffled. How does a baby die of simple diarrhea? Aren’t we in an age when modern medicine works miracles against far more complex problems?

And yet, preventable deaths like these are far from unusual throughout the developing world. Nearly six million children, mainly in the world’s poorest places, die each year from preventable and treatable causes like these.

We’ve actually made big strides in recent decades. In 1990, the number of children under 5 dying preventable deaths globally stood at 12 million-plus, according to the Washington, D.C.-based RESULTS anti-poverty activism group. It credits that decline to good work the United States and other countries have done in boosting access to critical vaccines, quality nutrition and better pre-natal and post-natal care, among other things.

They say even more help can flow via the Reach Every Mother and Child Act, bipartisan legislation before Congress that would realign nearly $3 billion in existing grants and better coordinate U.S. government aid strategy.

RESULTS has been lobbying members of Congress to support the bill. At least 11 members of North Carolina’s delegation have been contacted, including Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican, and Alma Adams, a Greensboro Democrat who represents parts of Charlotte.

The nonprofit has also been boosting the effort by bringing in Ugandan pediatrician Dr. Rebecca Nantanda to tour North Carolina and other states, putting a face and a voice to the issue.

Nantanda told me 17 mothers die every day in Uganda from high blood pressure, malaria, infections during their pregnancy and other preventable causes. Backers of the Reach Act hope it will help save 15 million children’s lives and 600,000 women’s lives by 2020, and possibly wipe out such deaths by 2035.

“The good thing about these solutions is that they’re simple, they’re effective and they’re sustainable,” Nantanda said.

I know that to some, this all seems like distant problems in faraway places.

But when you see a baby die for as senseless a reason as diarrhea, it doesn’t matter if you were in Central America or on Central Avenue. It’s a moral outrage – and a memory that won’t leave you.

Activists say we won’t reach the ambitious 2035 goal without the kind of added momentum the Reach Act might supply. I hope our state’s delegation gives it serious consideration.

Eric: 704-358-5145; efrazier@charlotteobserver.com

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