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Ending baby deaths in Timor-Leste

This was my first trip to Timor-Leste and I didn’t know what to expect. Looking at the statistics during my desk review, basic health care is a massive challenge in this corner of the world.

This country has some of the highest rates of newborn deaths in Asia, and the remote villages like the ones I was about to visit in Liquicia where ChildFund works, are among the most dangerous places for babies.

As we made our four-hour journey through the mountains, I reflected on the root of the problem. As with other countries where conflict and occupation has spanned entire generations, Timor-Leste was crippled by deliberate famine, population displacement, destruction of its infrastructure (estimated at 80 percent destroyed), and had its social structure upended by the loss of a third of the population.

The country has had to rebuild from scratch, and to its credit, things have been moving in the right direction, albeit with a long way to go.

The villages were not much more than a cluster of barebone houses lining a dirt road. I was happy to see electricity had made it to these hillsides, but it was very dry, and I’d been told by our team that several healthcare centres in our project areas still struggled with accessing water needed for basic services.

Healthcare centres are rare. Facilities were targeted during the war, and many of the country’s doctors and medical professionals were forced to flee. Women in remote villages often walk several hours in search of help for their sick children.

When I arrived at the community gathering, I was struck by how young the majority of people in Timor-Leste were. The country lost so many people during Indonesia’s occupation. More than 60 percent of Timor-Leste’s population is under the age of 25. In neighbouring Australia, where I live, it is less than half that. The health repercussions of this are something I have to think about as ChildFund looks at future programing here – there is a new generation of young Timorese who need support as they start getting married and having children. Most have limited maternal, child or sexual reproductive health knowledge and services. How can we work together to turn that around?

The remote villages in Timor-Leste lack services and expertise, but the young people I met were eager to embrace anything that could help their communities prosper.

Young people are leading the way in Timor-Leste

Local solutions to local problems

With the support of people who donated to this year’s End Baby Deaths in Timor-Leste Appeal, ChildFund has been training Village Health Volunteers from small communities who receive basic healthcare training and lessons on how to keep children healthy.

I was lucky enough to see a team of these Village Health Volunteers, a young man and woman, lead an information session about the importance of breastfeeding and nutrition. When I spoke to the man after the session he said he was inspired by a desire to help his community in any way possible.

His audience was just as enthusiastic. They peppered him with questions, ones they would no doubt follow up with the Village Health Volunteers in the months and years to come.

They also eagerly participated in a hands-on baby-food preparation class using locally-sourced foods that would help give their children a healthy, balanced diet.    Before eating together, the mothers lined up with their children as the Village Health Volunteers helped them wash their hands with soap and explained how important this simple action is in preventing the diseases that cause the majority of child deaths.

Babies in Timor-Leste are among the most vulnerable in the world

Basic solutions that will save lives

To an Australian audience, this information may seem very basic. But small things make a huge difference, and are vital to the survival of children.

Washing hands, cooking healthy meals, and breastfeeding may not seem groundbreaking, but they can save many lives.

Newborns who are breastfed by healthy mothers receive all the nutrients they need as well protection from infectious and chronic diseases. If breastfeeding were scaled up to near universal levels, about 820,000 child lives would be saved every year, according to the World Health Organization.

Nutrition plays a role in almost half of all deaths of child under the age of five. Young children who eat healthy diets have a better chance of fighting disease and growing to their full potential.

Unsafe water supply is responsible for 88 percent of cases of diarrhoeal disease, which kills an estimated 1.6 million children under five each year. Clean water and good hygiene can play a critical role in preventing child deaths.

Thanks to ChildFund supporters, mothers in Timor-Leste will now be armed with this information and practical solutions to keep their children safe. When their children get sick, or they have any questions, they can speak to a local Village Health Volunteer, who can help them find solutions.

In the villages I visited, these solutions will help save lives.

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