The frontline worker who helped guide Niger to MNT elimination

Jul 18, 2016
© UNICEF Niger/ 2015 / Sam Phelps

By Sam Kimball, Content Manager, U.S. Fund for UNICEF
Niger celebrates a huge milestone in the global fight against an excruciating killer of mothers and newborns. This is the story of Aichatou, a health worker who helped make this victory possible.

Aichatou: "I like to treat a person who is ill."
Aichatou, 40, is a community health worker in the village of Koulou Koira. The village is only 10 miles from Niger's capital, Niamey, in the green southwest corner of this vast, largely arid Sahara country. Grey and brown one-story buildings, built of stone and mud, dot the flat landscape unevenly, and a worn dirt path serves as a road. Like much of rural Niger, Koulou Koira lacks extensive health care facilities. Aichatou, in her tiny health facility, has come to serve as the hospital for the immediate area.

She seems to know everyone in every household. As a baseline for her work, Aichatou surveyed all the women of reproductive age in Koulou Koira and scheduled three home visits for every pregnant woman. These visits, she says, "allow us to do pre- and post-natal consultations."

Aichatou's records also allow her to keep track of the women and newborns who can benefit from birth and childcare services at the health facility. "I like to treat a person who is ill, to get them back to health," she says with a smile.

Infant and maternal mortality in Niger
The need for such care in Niger is severe. The country's infant and maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world. According to the World Bank's most recent data, 57 of every 1,000 babies die within a year of birth.

And as Niger also has the world's highest fertility rate, there's a crisis of infant and child deaths. Many are caused by easily-preventable unhygenic conditions during home births or in infant care — and chief among the causes has been MNT. Tetanus has been a major killer of mothers and their newborns, largely due to unsafe birthing practices. Unhygienic births allow tetanus spores, which are present in the soil the world over, to enter wounds.

© UNICEF Niger/ 2016 / Sam Phelps

Achieving a milestone: MNT-free Niger
Despite these obstacles, thanks to the work of Aichatou and others like her, Niger achieved a historic milestone this June: the country was declared MNT-free. This means that the world is one step closer to eliminating the disease: 19 countries have yet to eliminate MNT.

Aichatou is well-situated to push Niger to maintain its MNT-free status. In 2010, she received training in how to best monitor mothers and newborns to solve maternal and neonatal health problems. She continues to work closely with the mothers and babies of Koulou Koira.

Performing home visits in a flower-printed grey dress, she looks more like a neighbor stopping by than a trained nurse. The only thing that gives her away is her white medical coat. She says she uses these visits as an opportunity to "detect various signs of illness, counsel mothers on health care and hygiene, and promote the adoption of Key Family Practices (KFP)."

This list of eight practices — ranging from immunization plans to exclusive breast feeding to using mosquito nets — is designed to save children from deadly, but preventable diseases. By adopting Key Family Practices, Aichatou's mothers learn to protect themselves and their families.

© UNICEF Niger/ 2016 / Sam Phelps

Join Us on the Road to Victory over MNT
Since 2011, when Kiwanis first began supporting the global MNT elimination initiative, 20 countries have eliminated maternal and neonatal tetanus, most recently Niger, Indonesia, Cambodia, India, Mauritania and Madagascar. But MNT remains a public health threat in 19 countries. The women and newborns most at risk live in areas scarred by poverty, poor medical infrastructure or humanitarian crises. Please join Kiwanis and UNICEF in the fight to eliminate this excruciating disease.

This story was originally published on the U.S. Fund for UNICEF webpage.