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Health program gives children the gift of life in Papua

Community based initiative in one of Indonesia's remotest regions has drastically cut infant mortality rate

Alex Japalatu, Jayawijaya

Alex Japalatu, Jayawijaya

Published: March 16, 2017 03:12 AM GMT

Updated: August 31, 2021 07:11 AM GMT

Health program gives children the gift of life in Papua

A family cooks inside a traditional Papuan house, in Kimbim, in Papua's Jayawijaya district. A lack of ventilation in these homes in the central highlands of Papua has led to lung infections and the death of many children aged under five. (Photo by Alex Japalatu)

How her baby boy died in October 2006 is still fresh in Nelce Wandikbo's memory.

She had just given birth to her second son in Tumun, a small village in Papua's Jayawijaya regency, with the help of a traditional midwife, who used only a heated stone to cut the baby's umbilical cord.

But three days later the infant's navel swelled, and started convulsing.

"I rushed him to a clinic, but they could not save my baby boy," said Wandikbo.

"The doctor said he died of an infection because the stone used to cut the umbilical cord was unsterilized, and also due to malnutrition," she said.

High poverty levels and poor hygiene in Tumun have made the mortality rate higher than the birth rate.

A lack of basic knowledge about health has also contributed to the spread of infectious and respiratory diseases in the central highlands of Papua.

Cooking in unventilated homes is one such example of an unhealthy practice that threatens the health of children, health experts say. 

In December 2015, 35 infants and three adults died in Nduga regency due to complications brought about by pneumonia.

Filandy Pai, a doctor at Wollo Clinic in Wamena, the largest town in the highlands, said diarrhea and pneumonia are major diseases responsible for infant mortality in the region.

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"Sanitation here is very poor, and health centers, hospitals are far from villages," he said, adding that even in emergencies, patients have to be carried on foot for hours.

According to UNICEF, 147,000 children died in Indonesia in 2015 before they reached five years of age. The highest child mortality rate was in Papua, where many have a lack of access to clean water and open defecation is common.

The figure is down more than half that recorded in 1990, during which an estimated 395,000 infants died, but is still extremely high, UNICEF says.

Papua Provincial Health Director, Doctor Aloysius Giyai, said health care coverage in Papua is the worst in Indonesia.

"This keeps mother and child mortality rates high in almost all districts in Papua," he said.


Heart for others

In a bid to improve healthcare for mothers and children, Wahana Visi Indonesia (WVI), a non-profit organization that focuses on children's education and health, in collaboration with UNICEF and local authorities have been running a community based program to tackle childhood illnesses.

It targets remote villages where access to health facilities is poor.

"We hired and trained cadres in the villages," said Sonya Tadoe, WVI health coordinator for Papua's Jayawijaya, Tolikara and Lanny Jaya districts.

The program has at least 35 trained volunteers in Jayawijaya district, most of whom are local church members recommended by pastors or priests.

Yusup Yalella Hisage, a volunteer from Waima village said he has learned to treat babies when they are sick.

"When a baby suffers diarrhea they must take a oral rehydration solution," she said.

"When an infant does not want to breastfeed or show signs of infection, I immediately refer them to nearest clinic," she said.

The volunteers not only identify early symptoms of disease, but also educate people about nutritious food and healthy living.

"I planted beans, carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, as a pilot nutritional garden, to feed children under five," said Andina Lengka, a healthcare cadre, who is also a local catechist.

Her work covers several villages in Jayawijaya district, which she has to reach on foot.

Andri Lumi, Area Manager of Wahana Visi Indonesia, said the volunteers are just ordinary villagers some of which have not finished primary level education.

"They are simple people who care very much for others. They are sincere and eager to help, even though they are not paid," he said.

He said the volunteers get routine training from midwives and doctors from the Jayawijaya District Health Office.

The WVI program has helped reduce child mortality in Jayawijaya according to Tinggal Wibisono, Director of the Jayawijaya Health Office.

Melkias Himan, one of the volunteers, said that in one village alone, only one infant died in 2016, down from an average of six infants in recent years. Figures are down sharply in other villages in the area, she added.

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