He lost his parents as a child. Now he’s fighting so no child endures the same.

This blog post was originally posted on Upworthy.com as part of a project with Girls’ Globe, Upworthy and Johnson & Johnson.

When Jack Hisard was a young boy, he lost both his parents, one after the other, to diseases that could have been cured — if they had lived in other parts of the world.

First, Jack lost his father to malaria when he was only four years old.

“I remember that night clearly in my head because his last moments were spent sitting next to me in our small grass thatched hut in the village,” he writes in an email. “There was no hospital nearby where he could be treated.”

Jack’s Father. All photos by Mama Clinic/YouTube

Malaria’s considered a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD), which affect more than 1 billion people in over 149 tropical and subtropical countries. While these diseases are preventable, it’s estimated that 57 million years of life is lost due to premature disability and death from NTDs.

After Jack’s father’s death, life for his family became tough. His mother couldn’t provide for herself or her children for a number of reasons including the fact that she suffered from depression. Then, just two years after his father passed away, she had a stroke and died too.

The period after her death was difficult to say the least, but Jack was determined to find a way take care of his remaining family.

So, when he was just nine years old, he started fishing in Lake Victoria to pay for his school fees and feed his two younger siblings. He did this while still going to school, because he believed an education would ultimately make a difference in his life.

Jack (right) fishing with other kids from his village.

“Life was tough but my belief in education never faded,” he writes.

There were still some times when he couldn’t pay all of the fees associated with school so he had to miss some of it,  but he still remained the top student in his class for many years. Finally, thanks to all his hard work and dedication, he managed to graduate high school and secure scholarships that would take care of his college tuition.

But while he was in high school and college, he was thinking about how to solve the problem of the lack of health services in rural areas like his hometown.

Jack had witnessed firsthand how devastating preventable diseases can be to a community when they have limited access to health care. Aside from his parents, he saw close friends, relatives and neighbours succumb to malaria and other treatable diseases.

In their village, homeopathic medicine had been the main medicinal resource for as long as he could remember, because people could easily access the herbs they needed.

“I remember the many times I accompanied my grandmother, an herbalist, to go deep into the forest to dig for roots and tree barks which would be used as medicine for various ailments,” recalls Jack.

When it came to assisting births, traditional midwives would conduct deliveries on the floors of people’s grass thatched houses. These midwives and healers didn’t wear gloves or use any form of sterilization. They would use boiling salt water to clean wounds after deliveries and, if complications arose during a delivery, lives would be lost because they didn’t have the lifesaving tools one might find in hospitals.

So he decided he’d find a way to bring better health care to his community. That’s when Mama Clinic was born.

Mama Clinic provides primary healthcare services, outpatient and inpatient care and free maternal and child health care services to people in rural Kenya. Jack started the organization back in 2012, when he was only 19 years old. In just the last six years, it’s served over 40,000 patients.

The clinic has a lab, which allows for proper screening for diseases and reliable diagnosis. They currently have 42 beds available and 14 full-time employees to attend to patients. Jack has also built partnerships with national hospitals to ensure that patients who are severely ill can be referred or transferred for more specialized care. In keeping with their mission of providing access to quality and affordable healthcare to all in rural Kenya, Mama Clinic currently manages two satellite clinics in two other remote districts in the country.

Beyond what the facility provides, Mama Clinic also conducts Community Health Outreach programs where volunteers walk from village to village providing free health screenings and treatment to the villagers who cannot go to the facility.

“No other child should have a loved one die to a Neglected Tropical Disease (NTD), and mothers need a safe place to deliver their babies near their homes” says Jack. “My experiences as a child shaped my dreams. I knew I wanted to be a doctor… a doctor who wants to make a difference in his community because I don’t want to see another child go through what I had to go through, to live without the care and love of a parents”he explains in his Youtube video for Mama Clinic.

A mother and child at Mama Clinic.

Unfortunately he’s up against a number of obstacles. The high rates of malnutrition and the broken health care system in Kenya make people vulnerable to contracting NTDs.

Right now Kenya lacks operating facilities, medication and professionals. A mere 4,300 doctors currently work in the public healthcare sector for the country’s 38.6 million people.

What’s more, in 2017, it was estimated that around 9 million people in the country are undernourished, according to a report released by the United Nations last year. Severe malnutrition stunts growth and makes children more susceptible to diseases because it weakens their immune systems. High rates of malnutrition are also affecting almost 40,000 pregnant and nursing mothers in Kenya and their babies.

Malnutrition in childhood and pregnancy can be very dangerous. Women who are malnourished while pregnant face higher risks of mortality during labor and premature births. These are exactly the types of problems Jack’s Mama Clinic is trying to address by bringing a functioning health care facility full of professionals to his underserved community. His initiative makes screenings and treatment more accessible, which in turn is helping combat these treatable health problems.

Jack knows that in order to offer the most comprehensive health care, he’s got to flesh out his education even more.

Jack with a young patient.

That’s why he’s currently attending Michigan State University where he’s studying public health and nutrition, and focusing on the epidemiology of diseases and their relation to nutrition. He wants to learn how poor nutrition can make it easier for people to contract NTDs, because that’s such a huge problem in rural Kenya.

His next step is to become a medical doctor so he can acquire the expertise and experience to better attend to his patients, expand Mama Clinic’s work and run it long term.

He knows that this knowledge is essential for him to run the best health clinic he can and ultimately save more lives in his community.

But perhaps what’s most rewarding for Jack is seeing how his  dedication to education is inspiring other kids in his village to follow in his footsteps.

As the first person in his village to go to college, he hopes his story will also lead to more of them attending university. “It became my dream to give that hope to other people,” he says.

Despite growing up in challenging conditions, living in a slum and losing his parents at a young age, he exceeded expectations at school, received a full ride fellowship to Watson University and has represented Kenya through the Young African Leaders Initiative. Needless to say, he’s a prime example of what hard work and dedication can lead to.

Sometimes the best motivation is overcoming the most difficult of experiences. If anyone is a testament to that, it’s Jack.

“If you have dreams and are willing to pursue them, there is a way out of poverty.”

Forget the ‘Mommy Wars’ – Breastfeeding Inequality is the Real Issue

Too many heated words and firey tweets are being spent on the breastfeeding ‘mommy war’. It needs to stop.

Whether or not a well-educated and well-off mother chooses to breastfeed is not the big issue. The real problem – one impacting tens of thousands of lives – is breastfeeding inequality. Too many mothers are NOT getting equal opportunity to breastfeed.

Did you know that in the US, breastfeeding rates vary wildly from state to state? In Louisiana, 57% of infants are ever breastfed. In California, it’s 93%. That’s a huge difference.

It’s no surprise that Louisiana is one of the poorest states while California is one of the wealthiest. In fact, socioeconomic forces drastically affect breastfeeding rates. This visual guide by WeTheParents brings the shocking reality of breastfeeding inequality into focus.

Women born into socioeconomic hardship tend to have lower family income, lower level of education, and lower breastfeeding rates.

It’s not fair for the baby or the mother.

Some of the reasons for reduced breastfeeding are:

  • Less access to paid maternity leave
  • Lower paid jobs that are less likely to allow for pumping breaks
  • Inadequate maternity and lactation support in hospital
  • Less effective family and community support
  • A culture that doesn’t treat breastfeeding as a desirable status symbol (in contrast to the ‘crunchy mommies’).

The problem is intensified because babies born into conditions of hardship are less likely to receive adequate healthcare, parental involvement, and nutritious supplementary food once weaning begins.

This means that the babies who would benefit most from breastmilk are the ones least likely to get it.

Mothers Unite

This week is World Breastfeeding Week organized by World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA). It is the perfect opportunity to begin reframing the debate.

The mommy wars are a distraction. Let’s not waste valuable energy debating whether or not a well-off, middle-class mother is right to breastfeed her child. Yes, breast is best, but it’s likely her child will get a good start in life either way.

Mothers, let’s all come together and fight for breastfeeding equality. Surely we can all agree, that if a woman wants to breastfeed, she should be given the best possible chance to do so. The fact that less well-off mothers often don’t have the same knowledge or opportunities to breastfeed their babies is simply not right.

Instead of dividing along tribal lines, let’s unite and push for all mothers to have the same access to breastfeeding information, support, and workplace lactation programmes. It’s this that will really drive up breastfeeding rates and improve health outcomes for mothers and babies.

And so, the next time you find yourself caught up in breastfeeding guerrilla warfare taking place within the comments section of some blog, remember the real issue: breastfeeding inequality.

Neve is a mother of two, writer and breastfeeding advocate. You can find her trying to simplify parenting and empower new moms to meet their breastfeeding goals over at her blog WeTheParents.

 

Healing the Invisible Wounds of Syrian Children

In March 2018, the Syrian conflict entered its eighth year with no end in sight. This war has stolen the right to childhood from millions of Syrian children. An entire generation is growing up with the ‘toxic stress’ caused by seven years of bombing, bloodshed and displacement.

In this interview, SOS Children’s Villages psychologist Dr. Teresa Ngigi explains the impact disasters and wars have on children and families, and tells us about the importance of the healing process.

Is there a difference between trauma from natural disaster and trauma caused by mass displacement or conflict?

“When you have continuous disaster – such as war, epidemic, or extreme poverty – children tend to develop resilience that sometimes makes them almost numb to the trauma. This isn’t good but it’s a coping mechanism. Those experiencing disaster for the first time have not previously had the need to create such defence mechanisms.”

How does treatment differ for one-off disasters compared to prolonged emergencies? 

“Developmental trauma and continuous trauma create a basis for serious health, mental and relationship problems or learning disabilities – even though externally the individual may appear resilient.

Event trauma – from an earthquake for example – may result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The person becomes disorientated. They cannot put their life back together and this interferes with their wellbeing in different ways, including physical and mental health problems. 

In both instances, it is important to understand that there’s a difference between treatment and healing. Healing is a long-term process, but treatment can come in the form of medication to address symptoms without necessarily helping the healing process. We need to be able to assess the individual’s situation, identify their needs, create a treatment plan, and then evaluate whether we are able to achieve the appropriate objectives.” 

A drop-in center in Syria, providing unaccompanied and vulnerable children with shelter, food, health and hygiene services, and psychosocial support. Credit: SOS Children’s Villages

Does toxic stress impact girls & boys differently?

“The way the brain copes and processes toxic stress differs between boys and girls. The insula – the brain region that processes emotions and empathy – is smaller in girls and larger in boys who have experienced toxic stress. The functions controlled by this part of the brain include perception, motor control, self-awareness, cognitive functioning and interpersonal experiences. Girls who experience toxic stress may suffer from a faster than normal ageing of one of the part of the insula which puts them at higher risk of developing PTSD. High levels of stress could also contribute to early puberty in girls.

It’s important to put these findings into consideration when designing healing approaches. Girls may be more susceptible to PTSD than boys, hence they need specific interventions.”

How important is a long-term perspective in treating trauma like you see in Syria?

“Very important! If you start a process with a child who has been traumatized and you leave that process halfway, you are going to worsen the situation for that child. 

An assessment is extremely important to establish the needs of the child, as well as to assess whether we have the resources, time, and expertise to start and continue the healing process. Healing trauma is a demanding endeavor, and mental health specialists need to work diligently with a traumatized person to create a solid and reassuring relationship and guide them towards taking their power back.”

The initial phase of a humanitarian response typically involves reaching as many people in need as quickly as possible. Would you say that dealing with deeper mental health issues, especially of children, is more complex? 

“Yes, and this is why SOS Children’s Villages works with partner organizations to divide duties and responsibilities. There are organizations better able to address the immediate large-scale needs in a disaster zone. We use our expertise in caring for vulnerable children and helping their families to address their very specialized needs with a long-term perspective.

Through training local social workers and other specialists, SOS Children’s Villages can improve local capacity and strengthen the ability to respond to the needs of children and their families.”

Child Friendly Spaces (CFS) have been a central feature of SOS Children’s Villages’ work in emergency situations. How important are these facilities? 

“Child friendly spaces are a central part of our emergency response work. They offer a great environment to deal with trauma because you have caregivers who are trained, a secure and safe place, and an environment where children can express themselves. After trauma it is very important to be able to express yourself. Even without verbalizing experiences, children are involved in drawing, art therapy, singing, dancing and other activities.

It is also important that parents take part in activities so that they can participate in the healing process. Participating with their children is therapeutic for parents. We help address the needs of the parents through the children.” 

Children participating in educational and psychosocial activities at one of SOS Children’s Villages child friendly spaces in Aleppo, Syria. Credit: SOS Children’s Villages

How do Child Friendly Spaces help in providing ‘normalcy’? 

“Child Friendly Spaces offer a place for children to play, talk with other children, learn and tell stories. These activities help the children get in touch with themselves and feel a sense of belonging. When you bring them together, they feel they are a part of a community that is safe and protected.”

You can learn more and support SOS Children’s Villages Syria here!

Increased Breastfeeding Could Save Over One Million Lives

Last week marked World Breastfeeding Week. Led by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, this was the 25th annual celebration that encourages, advocates, and educates the world about the benefits of breastfeeding.

Though most people understand that breastfeeding is associated with improved health outcomes for individual babies, few understand how far-reaching nursing has the potential to be. In fact, the impact on overall health is so great that UNICEF estimates 1,300,000 lives could be saved each year if more women breastfed their babies.

This infographic from Mom Loves Best demonstrates exactly how important breastfeeding is to the overall health of infants, their mothers, and society as a whole.

Benefits to the Individual

Babies begin reaping benefits from breastfeeding right away. Produced by the mother and tailored to each baby’s individual need, breast milk contains the perfect custom blend of vitamins, fat, and protein. Breast milk also contains powerful antibodies which protect the baby from a number of afflictions. These include common ailments such as respiratory infections, diarrhea, constipation, and ear infection.

The antibodies also protect babies from more serious ailments like meningitis, salmonella poisoning, HIB, and pneumonia as well as chronic illnesses such as asthma, allergic reactions, Crohn’s disease, and Celiac disease. Breastfeeding is also associated with reduced incidents of mental health problems, delays in motor skills, poor communication abilities, and vision problems.

Benefits of breastfeeding even extend into adulthood with a reduced risk of Multiple Sclerosis, schizophrenia and other mental health problems, cardiovascular disease, and many different types of cancer. The breastfeeding mother can also enjoy personal health benefits including a lower risk of postpartum depression, improved bone mass in certain areas, and a decreased risk of ovarian and uterine cancer.

Benefits to Society at Large

The significant health benefits experienced by both breastfeeding mothers and breastfed babies can have a great impact on societal health outcomes if scaled up. The improved health of society’s members reduces its overall medical costs, lowers illness-related work absences, and improves work productivity.

Extended breastfeeding also offers a more natural form of birth and population control and results in better care of society’s children. Communities can enjoy reduced pollution due to the decreased use of commercially-made formula and its associated disposable containers.

While breastfeeding is widely understood to have health benefits for babies, few connect the surprising health outcomes to significant societal socioeconomic advantages. But when you look at the research, it’s clear that breastfeeding really does have the potential to have a miraculous effect on society’s overall welfare.

That’s why, as we look forward from World Breastfeeding Week, it’s important that we all work together for the common good.

Jenny is a mother of two, a writer and a breastfeeding advocate. You can find her trying to help new moms overcome common breastfeeding struggles on her blog, Mom Loves Best.

Breastfeeding for Survival, Health & Wellbeing

The right to the highest attainable standard of health, as well as the right to adequate food and nutrition are fundamental rights of every human being. Breastfeeding provides babies with the best start in life and is a key contributor for survival, health and wellbeing of infants and mothers. 

The Lancet Breastfeeding Series published in 2016 provides the most recent and detailed analysis of available research on breastfeeding. The Series confirmed that breastfeeding has numerous benefits – including decreasing the risk of infections and increasing the intelligence of children, and preventing cancers in mothers. There is also unequivocal evidence of breastfeeding’s protection from hypertension, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol levels, and obesity in the long term.

Support for breastfeeding mothers is essential. In the light of the overwhelming evidence on the positive impact of breastfeeding on survival, health and well-being, coordinated global action is urgently needed.

WHO, UNICEF and 20 other prominent international agencies and non-governmental organisations have recently formed the global Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative (BAI), to unify the voices of breastfeeding advocates and galvanise political, financial and social support for breastfeeding policies and programmes. The BAI aims to increase awareness of breastfeeding as a foundation of child and maternal survival, health and wellbeing – and to advocate to governments to invest in breastfeeding.

The Global Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative (BAI) is consistent with the Every Woman Every Child (EWEC) Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health. According to EWEC:

“Breastfeeding is a fundamental driver in achieving the SDGs as it plays a significant role in improving maternal and child health, survival and wellbeing. One year into the implementation of the SDGs, we must work together to level the playing field.” 

In the Global Strategy, breastfeeding is acknowledged as an essential driver in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). EWEC highlights breastfeeding as fundamental in improving not only nutrition, but also education, maternal and child health, survival and wellbeing. Together with the movement’s core partners, EWEC supports governments with strategic interventions in order to improve breastfeeding rates, to eventually reach or exceed the WHO global target of increased rates of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months up to at least 50%.

We have all of the facts in black and white about the benefits of breastfeeding, and we have devoted advocates who fight for women’s and children’s right to the highest attainable standard of health. Grassroots participation and its potential to create massive impact from simple ideas seems to be at an all-time high – a trend that will hopefully continue as the need for even more multi-level and cross-sectoral partnerships increases.

In order to achieve the SDGs by 2030, partnerships are not merely helpful to improve the health and wellbeing of the present and future generations—they are essential.

World Breastfeeding Week takes place from 1 – 7 August 2017. Celebrating collaboration and sustainability, it will focus on the need to work together to sustain breastfeeding. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has created an online platform with downloadable resources available in a range of languages to support individuals and organizations in their own campaigning and advocacy. 

 

My Attempts at Facilitating Change in Rural India

In my final year of medical school, as I was reading a chapter on Maternal and Child Health, I came across a table of mortality rates elaborating the health status of mothers and children of my country. They were dismal and though I could see that progress had been made, to my 20 year old brain, it seemed insufficient and too slow to be accepted. After all, these were lives and not just numbers! The rural-urban difference made the figures look worse. I was restless. How could I bridge this gap? I reasoned – a woman was the base of the society’s pyramid and if I could do something to strengthen her I could attempt to address this gap.

I was also convinced that since most of India’s population lived in rural areas, in order to make a significant impact, I should focus on rural areas. Though I had been reared in a city and had never seen what a village looked like, I was ready to learn along the way. Itching to materialise this dream, the month I passed my MD in Obstetrics and Gynecology, I moved to Bihar; a state with one of the worst reproductive and child health indicators.

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My first project there was to strengthen the quality of maternity services in the government hospitals through hands-on training of doctors and nurses. I knew things were in a bad shape, but nothing had prepared me for what I witnessed there.
I saw up close all the things that affected service delivery to mothers coming there from far-flung villages. They ranged from attitudinal apathy to infrastructural gaps to skill deficiencies, often leading to serious health consequences for women and their babies. Working on them was overwhelming and frustrating to start with, but we eventually succeeded in transforming the hospital dynamics. Significant gains were achieved in infrastructure, hygiene and skills. Our District Hospital later received the Prime Minister’s recognition for its radical transformation. It convinced my young heart that no matter how flawed, every system was capable of change.

My next project involved setting up a health center for women and children in a village which housed some of the poorest communities, was hard to reach and had poor means of transport. It is here that I witnessed firsthand the fate of women who never reached a government facility.

It was immensely humbling for me as a woman and as a doctor to see what happened to their childbirths, to their family planning needs and to their children battling with malnutrition and pneumonia. Maternal and Childhood malnutrition was rampant and with the nearby government health centre non-functional, most deliveries were aided at home by unskilled birth attendants. Women of the village had no access to contraception and one could easily find women with up to ten deliveries. Prenatal checkups were not considered important as pregnancy was seen as a natural event, not a ‘disease’ that needed a doctor.

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I saw how quackery quickly proliferated in such places to fill the void created by a struggling government health system and how unscientific beliefs and taboos easily gripped such rural societies, vulnerable by poverty and ignorance. I also saw how the deep seated caste and gender divisions led to disempowerment of women and their children. A range of psychological issues and non-specific aches and pains in these women revealed to me their deeper emotional turmoil, isolation and loneliness, as a result of living most of their lives alone. The child bearing and the child rearing shared just with other women, while their husbands were away at better paying jobs in cities. I had to pinch myself when I saw young women being restricted to the confines of their homes due to fear of being seen by other men. With such ground realities, I had to reorient myself to move beyond providing safe childbirth and contraception to using healthcare as a tool, as a medium towards initiating deeper discussions with women, urging them to find their individuality.

I am glad I followed up on my dreams of medical school early enough. I feel happy that I am spending the most productive years of my life doing something that I find meaningful and worthwhile. Working for rural areas, its women and children, has given me my most precious moments as a doctor and as a woman.