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The Female “Army” Leading Ethiopia’s Health Revolution
By Kelly Ramundo
Published with permission
Original Article from USAID FRONTLINES Publication
A fleet of 35,000 frontline extension workers and their “model” families are helping carry out Ethiopia’s mission to provide universal access to basic health services and are empowering communities to take charge of their own health from the grassroots
Ethiopia, Africa’s second most populous nation, is also overwhelmingly rural. Bucking the global trend of mass migration to cities, over 80 percent of Ethiopians still live in hard-to-reach areas. This isolation presents a formidable challenge for the government’s health sector, which, to complicate matters further, suffers from a severe shortage of doctors and health professionals. In a country of over 80 million, there are only 2,152 physicians—one for every 36,000 people.
Around a decade ago, the infant mortality rate in Ethiopia was nearly 10 percent, and the rate of those dying before their fifth birthday topped 16 percent, both statistics among the world’s highest. At a time when world leaders were gathering to set ambitious targets to raise the bar on global health with the Millennium Development Goals, Ethiopia’s numbers demanded attention.
And while progress in child health has been made—over the past five years, the under-5 mortality rate has decreased by 28 percent, from 123 to 88 deaths per 1,000 live births—the Ethiopian Government still considers the death rate intolerably high as one in 11 children today still do not live beyond their fifth birthday.
Finding answers to several questions was considered central to making greater gains: How do you bring quality health services to rural villages? How do you empower families to take charge of their own health? How do you encourage pregnant women to seek preventive care and dissuade them from potentially dangerous home deliveries? After babies are born, how do you ensure they are fed properly, and are vaccinated to survive those tenuous first months and years of life? How do you give mothers the information they need to improve their family’s health, including the benefits of birth spacing? When government-sponsored care is available, how do you encourage deeply traditionally people to use it?
While these basic questions barely warrant a second look within developed health systems, to the Ethiopian Health Ministry, they often represent a matter of life and death.
Women at the Center
The government’s response, according to Ethiopian Health Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has been to methodically construct a “women-centered” health system “by linking leaders at the national, regional and district levels with women’s groups in every village across the country.”
The plan was officially rolled out in 2003 in the form of the landmark Health Extension Program (HEP). The government would first train a fleet of young women for a year to provide basic, largely preventive, primary health services to rural villages, and then deploy them in pairs around the country to alert communities to unhealthy practices and empower families to take charge of their own health. The program was designed to tackle both the rural access problem and the health-sector workforce gap.
The HEP works like a countrywide referral network, rippling up from its foundation at rural health posts (home base for the extension workers), to the larger, better-equipped health centers, each serving around 25,000 people. At the top of the pyramid are the country’s 122 hospitals, each staffed with at least one doctor.
Additionally, as of last year, Ethiopia’s front line—the health extension workers—began to count on even deeper levels of grass-roots support when the government-named “Women’s Development Army” was formed. These community-level volunteers are trained by the health extension workers to focus more intensively on sparking local behavior change. They make regular rounds to check on neighbors and encourage practices like latrine building and setting-up separate cooking spaces. They are from “model families” and serve as living examples that the health extension workers’ messages are being heard.
“These model families influence other families to follow suit, and the changes seen at the community level are phenomenal,” says Jeanne Rideout, health team leader for USAID/Ethiopia, which funds the Integrated Family Health Program (IFHP), a five-year project providing technical, managerial and financial support to the Health Extension Program.
The government has a lot riding on this network of women. “These development teams are being empowered to monitor health and well-being. Through the aggressive social mobilization of this massive army of health extension workers and local development teams, we are determined to bring about the fundamental grassroots change needed to achieve our MDG targets,” wrote Tedros in the forward to the Health Sector Development Plan IV, the government’s road map to improving health in the next five years.
Health from the Grassroots
Wubalem Bezabih, 25, and Fetelwork Gezahegn, 28, are two of the roughly 35,000 health extension workers the government has trained under the program to date. Their base camp, Remeda Health Post in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia, is a small concrete structure. From there, the women provide basic primary health care and outreach for around 5,000 villagers.
Managing the post involves rotating on daily foot patrols to educate villagers on basic practices and services that are often lifesaving interventions in rural communities.
“The really basic things are what’s most important for the rural people; in other words, vaccinations, antenatal care, sanitation, nutrition—helping people to understand the importance of hand washing; simple malaria prevention like bed nets and spraying; and the need for pit latrines,” says USAID/Ethiopia Mission Director Tom Staal. “This is what health extension workers can do. They’re not doctors. But just these basic interventions can help prevent 90 percent of health-care issues for most families.”
Bezabih and Gezahegn display the books where they meticulously record the day’s interventions—the number of children who presented with fever, diarrhea or cough that month; how many women sought family planning and how many are educated on it; how many children were screened and treated for slow growth; and a directory of their area’s pregnant women and their check-up schedules.
Throughout the country, including in the six regions where IFHP supports the Health Extension Program, all health extension workers record and report data in the same way, facilitating the government’s ability to measure progress.
The women boast about their accomplishments: “In this kebele [Ethiopia’s smallest administrative area], malnutrition has gone down. There have only been four cases out of 1,012 kids,” explains Gezahegn. Challenges persist, however. Because this health outpost has no running water, the health extension workers often haul it on foot. “Sometimes you get tired,” Bezabih admits. “When you get to a rural home and the people are not there.”
Many of the country’s extension workers are trained to perform clean deliveries. In November 2011, Bezabih and Gezahegn safely delivered three babies. Their goal, however, is to encourage the community’s women to make the 3-kilometer journey to the more sophisticated health center where mothers and infants have a better chance of surviving a complicated delivery.
The Ripple Effect
At the second rung of the HEP are the health centers, managed by the equivalent of physician assistants who go through three years of state-sponsored training. At the Buge Health Center, in Damot Gale woreda in SNNPR, 27-year-old Ayelech Getachew oversees 24 staff. The resident health officer explains that, like the health extension workers she works closely with, a large part of her staff’s job involves convincing the surrounding populations to use their services. “Before our community sensitization and training, they explain, 10 or 11 women came here to deliver per month. Now it’s 25,” she said.
Like most health centers, Buge now boasts a trained midwife, deployed as part of a new government initiative to provide a skilled birth attendant at each center.
Twenty-five-year-old midwife Kasech Negash enters the Buge antenatal room and explains that the health center staff encourage women to make at least four visits to the health center before delivery.
Zergu Tafese, IFHP’s manager for SNNPR, explains just one of the harmful deep-seated practices midwives and health officers are trying to curb. “Traditionally, in Ethiopia, people used to [wash] newborn babies in cold water. Midwives are counseling mothers to delay baby washing for at least one day,” he explains.
Adding to these health professionals’ ever-growing arsenal of skills and knowledge, IFHP, implemented by USAID partners Pathfinder and John Snow Inc., recently sponsored training in integrated management of newborn and childhood illnesses, which addresses all major causes of child death in an integrated fashion. Now one provider can treat respiratory infections, malaria or diarrhea as well as screen for malnutrition in a single visit. The center also offers women information about various methods of contraception that can help limit the size of their families. “Anyone coming for family planning gets HIV tests,” Getachew adds.
It is this kind of integrated care—promoted by health-care professionals up and down the referral network—that is the lynch pin of USAID support to the Ethiopian Government’s efforts to reform the health sector countrywide, as well as to the Obama administration’s greater Global Health Initiative worldwide.
Treating the Person, Not the Disease
As one of the two largest bilateral donors to Ethiopia’s health system (the other is the U.K. Department for International Development), USAID is also the largest supporter of its effort to integrate a vast number of diverse but desperately needed services under one umbrella.
USAID/Ethiopia’s Integrated Family Health Program was launched in 2008 as an effort to bridge and streamline two separate programs, one concentrated on child health and the other on reproductive health. Today it operates in six of Ethiopia’s nine regions and 283 districts, or woredas, covering almost 32 million people. At its core, the program supports the government’s mission to offer the country’s women, who are the primary caretakers in Ethiopian society, a range of health and education services—including maternal, newborn and child health, and family planning—as a package deal.
“Integration means addressing all a person’s health concerns in one visit. Before, if a woman brought her child for immunization, a provider would not necessarily ask her about family planning, or screen her child for poor growth,” says USAID’s Rideout. “Now, health services are set up to address all the person’s needs, not just the issue that initially brought them to the facility.”
Although Ethiopians still face a wide range of development challenges, including access to safe water and sanitation; and in some areas, harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriage, health-sector reform is starting to transform peoples’ lives, especially in the area of child health.
Between 2000 and 2010, the under-5 mortality rate was cut in half, from 166 deaths per 1,000 live births to 88.
Contraceptive use in this time period nearly quadrupled. Although Ethiopian women still have an average of 4.8 children each, the total fertility rate is down from 6.4 in 1990 and 5.4 in 2005.
The Health Ministry’s initiative to train 9,000 skilled midwives and deploy them to health centers by 2015 is expected to continue to bring maternal, infant, and child morbidity and mortality numbers down further as the battalion of female health professionals grows and gets trained.
And importantly, the Women’s Development Army—the force of community-based volunteers—is continuing its advance. “It is now taking over much of the education function that the health extension workers used to do, because the volunteers are such staunch believers in the process,” says Rideout.
The Ethiopian Government is not settling for mild success. It has set ambitious targets for maternal and child health for the five-year period from 2011 to 2015. Among its targets are bringing maternal mortality down from 676 to 267 per 100,000 live births and further reducing under-5 mortality rates from 88 to 67 per 1,000.
Transforming Care for the Rural Millions
Although the Heath Extension Program is less than a decade old, it has brought basic health care within reach of some 67 million rural residents for the first time: Roughly 85 percent of the population is covered.
“Up until about six years ago, the vast majority of Ethiopians had no access to a health facility of any kind,” says Staal.
The number of health centers has quadrupled from 668 to under 3,000 over the past five years, and the number of health posts has more than doubled over the past six years to over 15,000.
As Ethiopians receive more reliable health care, and learn to use it more dependably, heath indicators are expected to follow suit.
Staal credits Ethiopian Health Minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom as the general behind the health army’s rise: “He’s a dynamic guy, a real visionary, a real leader … and is internationally recognized. When it comes to the Health Extension Program, it’s been his vision and his determination to make it happen that has ignited so much success.”
USAID has been behind the Health Ministry every step of the way. The Agency has supported health-worker training and implementation of integrated care up and down the referral chain, especially at the community level. U.S. Government health-sector support in 2010 also provided crucial medicines, vaccinations and supplies as well as management and infrastructure support for the ministry nationwide.
Tedros calls the relationship a functioning partnership, mainly because the United States is supporting the Ethiopian Government’s own priorities. “We set where we would like to be and how to get there. And I’m really glad that USAID supports us based on that: It is helping us actually to make progress and to get good results,” he says, adding: “When I work with USAID, we focus on two things. One is saving lives now, but at the same time we are building the system for the future. Our partnership has been based on this understanding, and it has been key to our progress.”
“The Ethiopian Government still considers the death rate intolerably high”
That is really funny.Woyane is killing, torturing and sending its own citizens to exile and yet considers child mortality is high. What a kind government we have?
Johnk, your comments reveals clearly what you and few of your likes care more. They care about their personal profit and well being instead of saving millions of childeres lifes. That means nothing to them as it did the last 200 years before Meles!! You have been the enemies of Ethiopia ever since. What you mean when you say you love Ethiopia to death, you mean you love yourself and dont care for anybody else, even if your country people are dying like flies from hunger! You and your likes did nothing to change that except boasting how you love your country.That is not love and compasion but cruelity!! You are not Ethiopian!
What makes a good farmer good? Because he/she saves the crop and kills the weeds. What is new in the world? What weeds are good for? They may even appear greener than the crop but they have always been detrimental. There is a legally sold item to abolish them, called herbicide. Developed nations have been using them for a while but as you know we just got the chance. Soon we should be free from these noxoius weeds and bring our farms to the most productive level. Long live the Good Farmer! Your good deeds will always be rewarded!
Is it a misnomer for “junk"? why did you quote that sentence out of context and tried to paint black the whole optimism shown in the text? You know, Ethiopia is really a blessed country to have feeble foes like you.
@ To all,
The femele “army” may save lives, but the Woyanne CADRES destroy the country!
Let us all have hope for our sisters good work, but at the same time let us all fight and destroy the pathetic, non-productive Woyanne CADRES.
Truth bless you all.
If as reported, most of this was achieved in the last five years, imagine what the government can accomplish in another forty years, given the chance.
Your metaphor is really worrisome. I think you are a sick man, what you are refering as weed and to eradicate are the people of Ethiopia you are talking about. I hope people are aware of people like you, the next aspiring Hitler and we know your colleagues from outside who are educating you on depopulation. Of course basically you are experimenting on Ethiopian people that we won’t see the result after 5 or 10 years or the next generation. I hope the Ethiopian people need to be educated that not only you guys are just racists but also aspiring Hitlers. Just remember, India and China whith highest population accept their over population and are continuing to grow and how to get the rest of their people out of poverty while you guys are thinking of how to destroy your people, but in twisted way the people you see as enemies. You the “farmers” soon your stories will be out and you will be in front of ICC. We don’t care who ever is helping you accomplish this.
Ha ha ha…..you seem to be very scared. I guess you are one of the weeds, may be even the thorniest. Well, as you were able to precisely speculate, we have gone way far to plan for the next thirty to forty years. I hope no one doubts on the clarity of the road map we have on place, even your next to God - America. However, your analogy to compare the visionary PM Meles Zenawi with that of the 8th grader moron Mengistu was a big mistake. TPLF fought for 20 years to abolish Mengistu, who do you think will fight against TPLF? None, at least as of now. Trust me, no one of this and next generations will dare to quit college education and determined to camp at the desert to fight against hundred thousands of well armed soldiers. Perhaps you may speculate, the fall comes from within. But, remember, every Tigrean remembers what you did between 1940s and 1980s. We won’t let you dry the sea any more. The sea will rather become an ocean.
Again don’t worry; we still build sky scrapers in Gojam and factories in Gondar and life saving hospitals in Debreberhan. We have no intention to abolish the innocent. We clearly understand that there are Amharas who were as victims as we were. For the weed Amharas, though, we have the herbicide in action and soon you will see the leaves wilting and flowers shading. Happy 20th Anniversary my people!
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