Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Community health workers reaching world's most vulnerable

“I am always surprised by what community health workers can do,” said Jennifer Weiss, a health advisor at Concern Worldwide, “They can do a lot!”

At a Monday global health session on the role of community health workers, Weiss was one of four presenters who spoke about the importance of empowering CHWs and providing them with skills to combat preventable diseases. According to the World Health Organization, CHWs are typically local volunteers with limited training who are chosen by their communities to help improve the health of local residents. The session highlighted why this approach holds such promise in areas where resources are scarce and health workers are few.

The presenters hailed from organizations funded via the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Child Survival and Health Grants Program and working in the African nations of Niger, Kenya and Zambia. In an effort to reduce preventable child and maternal deaths, the organizations’ projects trained CHWs to provide health care in their own communities.

For example, in Niger, Concern Worldwide worked with 21 mothers in a region where only 53 percent of the population lives near a health care facility. The mothers were shown how to treat pneumonia and diarrhea, test for malaria, and identify the signs of serious malnutrition in children. Because the mothers had low reading and writing skills, CHWs used pictures to train them in how to deliver the potentially life-saving services. Over the course of the program, the mothers provided more than 5,000 treatments, and the treatment of malaria and diarrhea nearly doubled.

A similar project in Kenya organized by HealthRight International trained 1,000 CHWs to provide health education and refer serious cases to appropriate health services. CHWs also learned to recognize the common signs of danger during pregnancy, birth and post-delivery. Such knowledge is vital, as deaths among newborns in Kenya are much higher within community settings than within health facilities.

The final project highlighted at the Annual Meeting session and which was organized by Save the Children took place in a rural region of Zambia — a region that welcomed its first district hospital in 2013. The goal of the project was to create partnerships between CHWs and health professionals. Among the CHWs’ new duties was to accompany pregnant women to health facilities to give birth and as a result, deliveries at the facilities increased significantly.

While the highlighted CHW projects enjoyed success, they also faced a number of challenges, presenters reported. One of the biggest challenges was a lack of CHW supervision, which stemmed in large part from a shortage of skilled health care professionals. Another concern is the quality of the care that CHWs provide. Nevertheless, the projects demonstrated that CHWs do indeed hold great potential for providing desperately needed care in their communities and that their contributions can ultimately save lives.

— S.L.

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