Child Health Week – what can campaigns achieve

Professor Olikoye Ransom-Kuti was famous for promoting strengthening of primary health care services when he was Minister for Health in Nigeria twenty years ago.  When certain donors and partners wanted to push campaigns as the best way to achieve high coverage of childhood immunizations, the Professor resisted as best he could.  Ultimately he was proved correct – strengthening stable routine service delivery is tha main way to maintain coverage in the long run.

As Nigeria embarks on another series of campaigns known as Child Health Week, Nigeria Health Watch observes that, “We seem to be already very addicted to campaigns as a means of vaccinating our children rather than ongoing sustained routine programmes.” Specifically UNICEF reports that, “Executive Director, Ann M. Veneman and the Nigerian Health Minister, Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, launched the first ever National Health Week in Nigeria which will take place 1 to 8 August, 2009.”

Ideally “Over the course of the week, children, especially those in rural areas, will receive immunizations, deworming medicines, insecticide treated mosquito nets. Mothers will be counseled on key household practices like breast-feeding and basic hygiene.” Since there is a separate effort to provide universal coverage with mosquito nets in about half the states this year, it is not clear where additional nets will come from for this campaign, but we can hope that at minimum health education on malaria will feature.

But will coverage be achieved.  The Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs (JHUCCP) found in 2007 that while nearly 83% of women in northern Nigeria had heard about immunizations through campaigns and the media, actual immunization coverage remained low. Various social and cognitive factors – father’s beliefs and approval, levels of social support influenced coverage.  These are factors that cannot easily be addressed by campaigns aimed at mothers.

When malaria interventions are tied to such campaigns, they too may suffer from the poor response attributable to beliefs and concerns about immunizations and fears of strangers moving around the community delivering these interventions. One would hope that strengthening routine services would also be a way to strengthen trust in the intentions and reliability of local health workers.

Interestingly UNICEF’s Executive Director, in commenting on the Child Health Week efforts also observed that, “Malnutrition is a silent emergency in Nigeria. Among children under age five, 29 percent are underweight. Nearly three million children are suffering from chronic malnutrition and more than one million from stunting. This is simply unacceptable.”  Nutrition is certainly not an issue that can be addressed by a week-long campaign.

A timely juxtaposition of news drew attention to this nutritional challenge in today’s Washington Post, which said, “The nation blessed with Africa’s largest oil reserves and some of its most fertile lands has a problem. It cannot feed its 140 million people, and relatively minor reductions in rainfall could set off a regional food catastrophe, experts say.” A change in weather patterns could be a deadly tipping point –

Today, about 90 percent of Nigeria’s agricultural output comes from inefficient small farms, according to the World Bank, and most farmers have little or no access to fertilizers, irrigation or other modern inputs. Most do not even grow enough food to feed their own families (according to the Post).

So as Nigeria Health Watch resigns itself to campaigns by saying, “BUT yes… if that is the only way to reach most of our children….so be it,” we can hope that policy makers become more attuned to the broader health systems and economic development requirements that will guarantee families access to routine malaria control services and regular food supplies.

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