The recent visit of the Princess Royal marked an anniversary: Her Royal Highness, who is also President of Save the Children, first came to the country 40 years ago, in 1974.
Thankfully, a great deal has changed for the better in that time, although there is still a way to go. Child and maternal deaths have dropped drastically.
The numbers are impressive – but it’s the individual stories that really gladden the heart.
Most significant for me was meeting a healthy, happy little boy, Gutema, on his second birthday.
Without the help of Save the Children he would have died four months ago.
His mother, Denknesh Seyed, told us “Gutema developed a high fever and he was unconscious. Every one told me he was dead. I was heartbroken.
“Then Nigist, one of the health extension workers, came and she noticed a slight movement in his tiny body. She gave him immediate care to control his fever and then treated him for pneumonia and malaria.
“He is now back to his old self, playing with other children and feeding well”.
Since the Princess’s last visit in 2002, Ethiopia – a country branded on the world’s consciousness as a place ravaged by hunger, as images of starving children poured out during the 1980s and 1990s – has reached its Millennium Development Goal of reducing preventable child deaths by two thirds.
Since the deadline was 2015, the country is ahead of schedule. Deaths in childbirth have decreased from one in 10 to one in 67.
Working to protect mothers and babies
This reduction is in some part due to Save the Children’s work in maternal and child health. Today, we visited our work with the Government of Ethiopia’s Health Extension programme, in the Oromia region.
Essentially, this is a model of village-based care, training local health extension workers how to spot and treat signs of sickness such as high fever or diarrhoea in children, and when to refer more serious cases to a health centre or hospital.
The programme began in 2003 and Save the Children has worked with the Ministry of Health to help train the health workers in newborn and child care.
Three bright, well trained health workers
It was inspiring to meet Nigist, Almaz and Natagen, the three bright and enthusiastic health extension workers for Dongore Furde Kebele community, a rural community of about 6,500 people. They had spent a year in a training programme and have now been extension workers for eight years.
Their pride in their work was infectious as they showed us around their beautifully maintained health post, complete with individual medical records for each child, family planning advice, good nutrition advice, weighing scales and basic drugs.
There is still so much to do to tackle child (particularly neonatal) and maternal mortality in Ethiopia, but I left Oromia feeling that it really is possible to make change.
To quote our Chief Executive, Justin Forsyth, “we can be the generation to end preventable child deaths”.