Last year I travelled to India to learn firsthand how its people had finally broken polio’s stranglehold over the subcontinent. Just a few years prior, the country had had more polio cases than anywhere else in the world. The northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar looked like they would never succeed in ridding themselves of this ancient disease. And yet, the country has successfully defeated polio. To this day, the whole of India has not reported a single new case since January 13, 2011.
I did not have to wait long to meet just a few of the thousands of unsung heroes responsible for this incredible feat; namely the community health workers who immunize children in some of India’s most marginalized communities. Our visit to the railway station in Patna, Bihar’s capital city, highlighted the extent of their commitment. Here we witnessed health workers boarding trains and immunizing children before they left the station, making sure that no child missed out.
As the story of polio in India highlights, community health workers provide crucial health services in places where clinics and hospitals can be few and far between, working to fight preventable diseases like polio, malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS, while improving child and maternal survival. Earlier this year, leading experts from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health reported that community health workers save the lives of approximately 3.6 million children each year, reinforcing the important role they play in the global health community.
The transformational impact of community health workers has led to calls from governments, academics, and civil society for One Million Community Health Workers to address the gap in healthcare coverage across rural Sub-Saharan Africa. In this part of the world, where many countries remain off-track for achieving the health-related Millennium Development Goals, easily preventable diseases like measles and polio continue to spread, far too many mothers still die in childbirth and 10-15% of children never reach their fifth birthday. However, expanding the presence of community health workers and upgrading their skills could prove a game-changer, especially if they are equipped with smartphones and access to data.
In today’s world, many of us feel like our lives have reached a standstill if we’re not connected to the internet but, except in the rarest of situations, our lack of access to data is not a matter of life and death. However, in some parts of the world it is. Being able to afford the data charges to access basic information can in fact save lives.
It’s no overstatement to say that phones and data are revolutionizing the way healthcare is being delivered across sub-Saharan Africa. Health workers are increasingly using smartphones to record and access patient data, take part in ongoing training, receive emergency calls and track outbreaks, among other things. A phone also serves as a vital link between a community health worker and medical professionals back at that nearest clinic or hospital hundreds of miles away, allowing them to readily access expert advice. Quite simply, having a smartphone is no longer a helpful addition, but an integral part of the successful delivery of health services in this part of the world.
That’s why we’re inviting the heads of major telecommunication companies to attend the 2013 Global Citizen Festival. We’re asking them to provide support—such as free data, airtime, and smartphones—so that community health workers can improve even more lives.
Help us secure the support of these companies by lending your voice to this campaign. Do so today by heading to globalcitizen.org and sending an email to the Broadband Commission for Digital Development—a network including the biggest players in the telecommunications industry such as the heads of Digicel and Ericsson—showing that you support the work of community health workers.
Supporting community health workers is about far more than reducing the spread of a few diseases here and there. It’s about putting in place the building blocks of a healthy society and, in turn, paving the way towards ending extreme poverty itself.
Take the polio eradication effort in India. In the process of eradicating a terrible and debilitating disease, it has developed a blueprint for reaching every last child in even the most remote, socially excluded communities with life-saving interventions. As Dr. Bruce Aylward of the World Health Organization said, India’s health workers have reached “the populations that always get left behind for everything… [they’ve] put a face on the kids that nobody ever sees, the population nobody knows.”
Let’s support the scale up of community health workers everywhere, so that no child gets left behind.