Each year, a disease barely remembered by most Americans kills nearly one million children, a half million of those in Africa alone. This fact makes measles the single leading cause of vaccine-preventable death among children in Africa – more than AIDS, more than tuberculosis, and more than malnutrition. In a place where health conditions are extremely poor, living conditions are more than difficult, and access to health care is minimal, measles can be easily prevented with a simple vaccination. The Measles Initiative is a long-term commitment to control measles deaths in Africa by vaccinating 200 million children, preventing 1.2 million deaths over five years. Leading this effort are the American Red Cross, United Nations Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health. The cost is only $1 per child.
I recently went to Ghana in West Africa for the American Red Cross of Northeastern New York as an observer of the Measles Initiative. I have been to many countries in the past and I have seen many fascinating sites, witnessed wealth and poverty, beauty and destruction but none of those travels prepared me for my experiences in Ghana. I have always believed that we live in a very small world and that we are not isolated from worldwide events. These factors and my own innate interest in the health of our children (I have two young boys) prompted me to accept the invitation from National to join a group of fellow volunteers and staff on a trip to Ghana in West Africa to observe the Measles Initiative. This trip was an incredible experience.
Knowing the facts is one thing but to see the effect of the disease on the people is more emotional. One of the drivers we had in Accra had to place his son in the hospital the previous week due to measles. We asked why his son had not been vaccinated previously; his response was ”My wife could not get the time off from work to get the vaccination” and he “thought his son was vaccinated”. The son’s name is Michael, my middle name. This man was working over the weekend because he needed the money to pay for the health care for his son; his wife was at the hospital with their son so she was unable to work. Our driver was hoping he would be able to get to the hospital to see his son that weekend. Unfortunately, there are many “Michaels” in Africa. As I spoke with the volunteers about measles they all seemed to know someone or a family that had been affected by this disease.
Monday December 9th, a group of us took off to the Eastern Region and stayed in Koforidau where we toured school sites, mobile sites and Ministry of Health (MOH) sites. Each site was very unique and interesting. The schools are open-air buildings with the absolute minimum of fixtures – maybe even less than the minimum. The health centers are at times open-air buildings where people come to have their children checked by the MOH personnel, weighed and given basic health care. The mobile centers would be under a tree, on a porch or some other like open space. We did travel quite a bit in the Eastern region and saw the vaccinations given in each of these types of centers.
We stayed in Koforidau for three nights. On our last night we had dinner with several Ghana Red Cross officials including a member of the Ghana Red Cross who is a Doctor and a member of the Ministry of Health. It was really quite fascinating having dinner with him and discussing the measles initiative.
I did get to see the measles initiative in Accra. We saw some of the poorest parts of the city with open sewers and horrible living conditions. But the Red Cross was there to assist with the vaccinations. One vaccination site in Accra was in the middle of a slum area, next to an open sewer in a Red Cross building. The building was a small one-room shack. The local people wanted a vaccination site in their area and the Red Cross made that possible. Nearly a thousand vaccinations had been given at this site alone.
The volunteers that I met were wonderful, caring, incredible people. The volunteers were getting the children in their communities to the vaccination sites to make sure the kids received their vaccinations despite all the other problems in their lives. These people understand the need for the vaccinations and the long term positive impact it will have on them. These people are volunteering to do work for the Red Cross despite some of them did not even have enough money to have a lunch. These were truly inspirational people. The children were amazing to watch. They watched the whole vaccination process carefully, they watched the needle come out of the sterile package, inserted into the vaccination, then watched the vaccination enter their arm and then watched the needle being disposed of in a special container. Even young children watched this process closely. They know of the dangers of used needles.
While we were on our journey through the Eastern Region we toured some nice sites. We saw a dam and the biggest man made lake in the world – Lake Volta. We also saw some botanical gardens and a waterfall. Some other sites we saw included a slave fortress in Cape Coast (where the slaves were held prior to being sent to the colonies and other places) a rain forest where we walked a rope bridge about 120 feet above the ground. while walking across the rope bridge we could see over the rain forest.
This was a wonderful experience. Thanks for taking the time to listen, read and consider helping the Red Cross in this and other relief efforts.
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