The drive to curb disease and death among Nigeria's youngsters

Ntom Emmanuel lost his daughter to malaria(Photo: Christian Aid)

When Ntom Emmanuel's young daughter Laadi caught malaria, he faced a situation that no father should have to experience.

Ntom, a farmer and community worker in Mbakwan community in Benue State, Nigeria, could not afford to pay for the basic medical care needed to treat Laadi.

The health centre closest to his village was cut off by a deluge, after the local river flooded, so he could not walk there. Nor could he afford any other mode of transport. Left with no other option, Ntom resorted to herbal medicines to treat Laadi, but they did not work.

"I watched my daughter dying before my very eyes, I was in great trauma and despair, not knowing what to do," he recalls.

Eventually Ntom was able to raise the necessary funds for his daughter's healthcare. By that time the river had subsided, so he carried Laadi all the way to the health centre in his arms.

It was too late: Laadi was too weak to respond to treatment. She died. Grief-stricken, Ntom had to be helped back home across the river and had to be persuaded not to take his own life.

Ntom's story, told to my colleagues, is a tragedy. But the other tragedy is that his is not an isolated incident: children have been dying unnecessarily for too long here in Nigeria.

His experience is echoed in many households in poor, remote communities across Benue State, where child sickness and death is rife and where preventable diseases kill youngsters in alarming numbers.

Parents like Monica and Oga Ejeh can now access free healthcare for their children from Christian Aid trained healthcare volunteers.(Photo: Christian Aid)

Nigeria is one of the largest contributors to infant and child mortality in Africa. Every year, hundreds of thousands of children do not make it to their fifth birthday. The reason? Preventable childhood illnesses like malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea and severe acute malnutrition.

It's worth noting that most deaths of under-fives happen in remote, hard-to-reach communities like Ntom's, where caregivers are faced with physical, social and financial barriers to accessing health services. Obstacles such as long distances to health facilities, extreme poverty, poor infrastructure, harmful cultural practices, and inadequately equipped and trained healthcare staff.

In a bid to reverse this trend, Christian Aid in Nigeria has spent the past three years bringing together local organisations, communities and individuals across Benue State, to tackle the alarming numbers of children losing their lives to preventable diseases.

In collaboration with local partners (Jirah Doo Foundation and Ohonyeta Caregivers), Christian Aid has been running an ambitious £2.6m initiative – the Partnership for Improved Child Health (PICH) project – to protect 200,000 under-fives from malaria, pneumonia and diarrhoea.

During its three-year life cycle the project, which ended just last month, has helped more than 360,000 children under five: far exceeding its original target.

Oluwatosin Bakare, from Christian Aid's partner Ohonyeta Caregivers, has been part of the drive to reduce deaths among under-fives in Nigeria's Benue State.(Photo: Christian Aid/Paula Plaza)

I have personally seen the difference made by the new network of 900 community health volunteers trained by the project to provide early, effective diagnosis and treatment to tens of thousands of children. They have given out malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia treatment free of charge, so that sick youngsters don't have to rely on hard-to-reach health centres, herbalists or on caregivers who may not have funds to afford treatment.

These dedicated Nigerian volunteers have plugged the gaps in the system, increased awareness of child health services, and brought healthcare closer to remote communities – ultimately, saving lives in the process.

I have also witnessed the transformation that has begun thanks to the 340 faith and community leaders who have been mobilised to use their platforms to address social and cultural barriers to health services.

In short, this work has demonstrated the importance of empowering local people to provide the answers to the challenges they face. For instance, Ntom now volunteers as part of a community group to support people to access healthcare for their children. They help construct local bridges, renovate health facilities, and encourage caregivers to access free health care through the PICH project.

"Before now, when children are sick in the community, there is so much despair because the child may not survive it; death among children in Mbakwan and other communities was a weekly occurrence," Ntom reflects.

"Now, my children are healthy. Each time they fall sick, I go to a community health volunteer for treatment. [They] test my children and treats them free of charge."

This change has only been only possible thanks to the support of the 'UK Aid Match' scheme, run by the UK's Department of International Development. The scheme doubled all the funds that UK churchgoers and other individuals generously donated to Christian Aid's Christmas fundraising appeal in 2015.

On the week of the International Day of Charity (September 5), this is something to be proud of. In a country like mine, where people aren't expected to live beyond their 54th birthday, this support from the UK people is a lifeline. But much more remains to be done.

Poor health is a trap that stops millions of people living dignified, thriving and resilient lives. That's why we must continue stand together with some of the poorest and most vulnerable people – here in Nigeria and across the world – to work for a world where the root causes of poverty and disadvantage are addressed and overcome.

Nanlop Ogbureke is International Health Advisor for Christian Aid, and is based in Nigeria.