A recent visit to communities supported by Kiwis in Zambia made clear to Programmes Director Shona Jennings the link between extreme poverty and the big killers of children and mothers, HIV/AIDS and malaria, and the importance of the sixth Millennium Development Goal.

African daily life plays out before me, as I sit in the yard of Zepha’s home in rural Zambia. The grandmother wanders past a cluster of mud rondavels with a stack of sticks balanced on her head. Zepha’s children sit around her on a woven mat, picking fruit from a plastic bowl – a kind of crab apple they’ve harvested from the savannah behind their home. Zepha is hand-sewing a shirt for her young son while a baby sucks from her breast.

Malaria control agent and mum Zepha with her childrenMalaria control agent and mum Zepha with her children

Zepha is a malaria control agent trained through ChildFund, funded with New Zealand Aid Programme money and the generous support of Kiwi donors. Her role is to educate people in the area about malaria prevention, and to spearhead initiatives in her village that might halt the spread of the disease that afflicts 250 million people globally each year, killing almost a million. Zepha’s education work goes hand in hand with people receiving insecticide-treated mosquito nets. As part of the project that trained Zepha, ChildFund distributed 12,000 mosquito nets – that’s one for every two people in this remote district of Africa. In its first year, the initiative helped to reduce the incidence of malaria by almost 60 per cent.

One of the most rewarding things about helping oversee ChildFund projects in Africa and Asia is that I am constantly learning new things. And it’s here in Zambia, where over 16 per cent of pregnant women are HIV positive, that I listen to discussions about the link between malaria and HIV/AIDS. People – and especially children – who are HIV positive are more at risk of contracting severe malaria and dying from it. The viral count, which determines the severity of the disease, can be raised by malaria. For pregnant women, this increases the chance that they will pass the virus on to their child.

This makes it more clear why malaria and HIV/AIDS  feature together in Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 6, which aims to halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS, ensure universal access to treatment, and reverse the incidence of malaria and other related diseases. The MDGs are common global goals – established by the United Nations – that have guided governments and aid agencies to improve the lives of billions over the past 14 years. A new set of global goals are currently being developed to guide efforts after 2015.

UN MDG goal #6 (courtesy of un.org/millenniumgoals)

I leave Zepha and visit a village that is 18 kilometres from the nearest health clinic. There is no public transport, and it is a long, long trek to make on foot when you’re sick or pregnant. Although the road is well shaded by shrubs and trees, people travelling this road can’t afford to let their minds drift. There are dangers – they could encounter an elephant around the next bend and must be ready to run or hide. More than 60 per cent of Zambians live rurally, so access to healthcare is one of the major impediments to improving HIV/AIDS statistics in this country.

Despite this, all pregnant women in Zambia are required to visit a health clinic. With such a high incidence of HIV, it is crucial they are tested and given counselling. If positive, they are put on anti-retroviral medication by their second trimester. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 80,000 out of 500,000 annual deliveries are exposed to HIV, and 28,000 babies are born HIV positive annually. Antiretroviral treatment during pregnancy and breastfeeding significantly reduces mother-to-child transmission.

It’s also worth remembering that if you are living on under $2.25 a day you might not be eating food frequently enough. As antiretroviral medication needs to be taken with food to avoid nausea and vomiting this poses a real risk.

In this village, the chief has also insisted that, despite the distance, all mothers must attend a health centre to give birth and if they don’t, they will be fined. Some expectant mothers camp out or stay with family close to the health centres around the time of giving birth. Others are loaded into wheelbarrows, changing significantly my interpretation of ‘wheelbarrow race’. There are a few alternatives that are being used – back at the ChildFund office in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, it was hard not to miss the dozens of mountain bikes parked in the yard. Alongside the bikes were some trailer-like contraptions ready to be constructed. These, I was told, were bike ambulances about to be sent out to rural health clinics.

The participation of traditional leaders is a vital step in helping to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS, and they justify strict rules in order to save lives. Organisations like ChildFund, working with the leaders and government, offer important support.

Children picking up their treated mosquito nets to sleep underChildren picking up their treated mosquito nets to sleep under

Extreme poverty has many facets – disease is just one. ChildFund works with families using a holistic approach tailored to the communities’ needs. Along with our partner charities in this year’s Live Below the Line challenge, we are combating extreme poverty with varied and effective approaches.

Diseases spread like wildfire but so can messages of hope and wonderful ideas. Together we are making a difference, and with your help we will end extreme poverty. So spread the message!

Join us – think differently about extreme poverty and make a difference by joining Live Below the Line with ChildFund.

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