Ethiopia is organizing what it calls a Health Development Army aimed at lowering child mortality rates and improving the quality of care in rural areas where 85 percent of the population lives. The announcement came at an event marking progress in reducing malnutrition, one of the Horn of Africa's biggest child killers.
The 2011 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey reports nearly nine percent of the country's children die before their fifth birthday. Minister of State for Health Dr. Keseteberhan Admassu says while that figure is high, it is less than half of what it was 20 years ago.
Speaking Friday at an event to celebrate the drop in child mortality and malnutrition rates, Dr. Keseteberhan said a key factor has been establishment of a network of rural "health extension" posts.
Only a few hundred of these posts existed when the last big drought hit in 2008. Today, there are more than 9,000. The result has been tens of thousands of young lives saved.
Dr. Keseteberhan says the next step will be a military-style mobilization scheme reaching down to the family level.
"The government is setting up what we call the Health Development Army, which is basically organizing the community into small groups and engaging them to further own the programs that are implemented through the Health Extension Program," said Kesteberhan.
The minister told VOA the government hopes to recruit “model families” for the health army, who can help bring about changes in the health habits of rural Ethiopia, where malnutrition and child mortality rates are high.
"We have a very good basis to identify these model families, who can be the leaders in their communities to bring behavioral change and disseminate information," Keseteberhan stated. "So the Health Development Army is basically a way of organizing people, disseminating information and bringing behavioral change across a community."
The 2011 health survey suggests the massive international effort to improve Ethiopia's health is paying off. The number of underweight children has decreased by more than 30 percent over the past decade. During that time, the number of youngsters whose growth was stunted due to malnutrition has dropped from nearly 60 percent to less than 45 percent.
Ted Chaiban, country director of the United Nations children's agency, or UNICEF, called it a "remarkable achievement."
"It is clear that the health system in Ethiopia has established a robust and resilient system that can withstand periodic and cyclical shocks and emergencies without resulting in escalated mortality rates and increased levels of malnutrition," he said.
Friday's event also marked a milestone in achieving full funding for the Ethiopian health initiative. The Canadian government announced a $50 million, five-year donation, narrowing what had been a $95 million funding gap for the $365 million program.