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Educating mothers and saving lives in Timor-Leste

Dirce Sarmento is ChildFund Timor-Leste’s health officer. She is also the mother of a young and active toddler boy, Emanuel aged almost two years, so understands only too well both the joys and fears that accompany motherhood.

“I was very lucky during my pregnancy and delivery, because I had lots of support from midwives, as well as doctor in Dili’s National Hospital. It was very helpful to me because it was my first time and I did not have much knowledge on how to deliver a newborn,” says Dirce.

In Timor-Leste, one-third of all child deaths occur in the first month of life. Dirce says this is largely due to the shortage of proper healthcare facilities in rural areas, many of which lack even the most basic equipment, as well as low levels of education among parents on common child health issues.

Dirce explains: “Many mothers don’t know that they should have regular check-ups during pregnancy, as well as once the child is born. In some community health centres, the equipment and facilities needed to care for newborns just isn’t available, so a baby experiencing problems has very little support.”

Part of Dirce’s role is to establish and facilitate Mother Support Groups. Not dissimilar to those established by local government health workers in Australia, these groups provide mothers, and new mums in particular, with peer support and guidance. They also make it easy for organisations like ChildFund to share information, and provide advice on child health and development.

For ChildFund worker Dirce (pictured with her son Emanuel and local mothers) education and training is key to saving lives.

Dirce says: “I believe my country still needs to improve our community knowledge on child health issues. Newborn care is very important, but we also need to focus on a child’s health from pregnancy right until they reach five years of age, as this period is when children are most vulnerable.”

Currently, only one in four Timorese children are vaccinated against common childhood diseases, which means there is no herd immunity in local communities. It is difficult to imagine but diseases like polio, unheard of in Australia due to almost universal vaccination coverage, are still life-threatening to children in Timor. An important part of ChildFund’s work is collaborating with the Department of Health to increase vaccination coverage rates among children aged 0-5 years.

ChildFund Timor-Leste is also working closely with the government to ensure that health workers have the proper training and skills needed to ensure newborns have the best chance in life. “For example, some of the healthcare staff we have trained can now identify respiratory issues with newborns, so this is really important and could mean lives are saved.”

For Dirce, education and training is key to saving lives. “I was recently thanked by a father whose child was diagnosed with malnutrition. With the family given information on what types of food to prepare, the child has now completely recovered.

“And every day I see more and more mothers bringing their children to health facilities – not because the children are sick, but to have their health monitored and to get advice. That makes my job so rewarding.”

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