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January 10, 2012

New Coalition Promotes Investment in Health Workers

by Joe DeCapua

Sixteen major non-governmental organizations have launched a new initiative to add one million health care workers in developing countries.

The new Frontline Health Workers Coalition says training more community-level workers is the most cost effective way to save lives, speed progress on global health threats and promote U.S. economic and strategic interests.

“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,” said coalition chair Mary Beth Powers.

Powers is also the head of Save the Children’s Newborn and Child Survival Campaign.

“The goal is really to put a million of these frontline health workers on the ground in the next four years by the end of the period where we’re measuring progress against the Millennium Development Goals. And we’re asking the U.S. government to contribute one quarter of those, which is 250,000 additional health workers where they’re most needed,” she said.

The U.S. is already heavily involved in training health workers through its development agency, USAID, and the National Institutes of Health. Training and funding would also come from major corporations and other donor countries.

Saving lives

Powers said frontline workers include community health workers, midwives, village pharmacists, physicians’ assistants, nurses and doctors who work in community-level clinics. She said they save lives.

“Every year, for example, 7 and a half million children die, many from preventable or treatable causes. And a million health workers reaching those children could dramatically reduce those deaths each year,” she said.

She added they’re a big reason why child mortality has declined 37 percent in the last 20 years.

Angela Nguku is a midwife in Kenya and coordinator for AMREF, the African Medical and Research Foundation. She said training more health care workers would have a major beneficial effect in her country.

“We are going to be saving lives. We are going to be stopping the disabilities and the deaths that we have seen. And at the end of the day we are going to see families united, children going to school, children growing up to maturity because they’re not going to die because of diseases that could be prevented if we had health workers. And we are going to see more economically empower nations because if I’m healthy, I’m strong. Then I’m able to work and be productive for the nation,” she said.

Overwhelming

Nguku works in many of Kenya’s hard-pressed areas, such as Turkana. That northern region, which is normally dry, was baked and parched by a long, severe drought. Sometimes, she said, she feels overwhelmed by a community’s medical needs.

“I just watch and see helplessly because I am attending to this particular mother and there’s a child there convulsing because they have malaria or pneumonia. I have a mother coming for immunization maybe for tetanus because she’s pregnant or even another mother who’s bleeding who has delivered, but I cannot leave this particular one. Sometimes I wish I had extra hands to attend to this particular mother, but I’m not able to do so because I am the only one in the facility and they have so many patients waiting for me,” she said.

Nguku said more health workers would help Kenya reach the Millennium Development Goals and help the country grow in general.

Frontline Health Workers Coalition chair Mary Beth Powers describes those community health workers as heroes.

“They really walk the walk. And I think I’m personally, as a public health person, inspired by the service that these people provide to their communities often without a great deal of thanks, often with very low salaries or sometimes as volunteers,” she said.

The coalition includes the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Family Care International, the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care and RESULTS.