BLANTYRE, Dec 14 (IPS) - Looking at Patience Ziyenda, 37, one would say that she is a jovial woman. But deep inside, Patience is sad. She is among the many women in Malawi who have been struck by the catastrophe of child mortality.
Patience lost three children under the age of five within a period of six years.
"My eldest child, who was four years old, has just died. I am so devastated because I thought she would live longer than her younger siblings," she says, as tears well up in her eyes. Her other two children died at the ages of six months and two years respectively.
Patience is explaining her ordeal while fetching water from a kiosk with eight of her friends. Her story is not unusual in Malawi. Although the women in the group seem to have no care in the world as they laugh at jokes, six of them lost children younger than five.
Katarina Temani, 27, a friend of Patience, says that she has one child left who is eight months old. Her two other children only reached the ages of four and three years. They died within a space of three weeks of each other.
"I am not sure if the baby I have left will survive. We leave it in God's hands," says Katarina.
Despite such tragic experiences, Malawi is among the few countries in Africa which are on track to meet the United Nations (U.N.) Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on reducing the under-five mortality rate. The fourth MDG is to cut this rate by two-thirds, by 2015.
Malawi's under-five mortality rate declined to 133 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2004, which translates into a 43 percent reduction in 12 years. The British government's Department for International Development is positive that Malawi will meet the 2015 target.
A U.N. report released on Nov. 22, 2006 indicates that despite sub-Saharan Africa being the most dangerous place in the world for newborns, Malawi is faring better than many of its counterparts in addressing infant mortality.
According to the report, published in Johannesburg and Geneva, more than a million babies in the region die each year before they are a month old because of a lack of essential health care.
Malawi, together with Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Madagascar, Tanzania and Uganda, is regarded as having made significant progress in reducing infant deaths over the last 10 years, thanks to increased government spending on basic health care.
Currently infant mortality stands at 94 deaths per 1,000 live births in Malawi. A decade ago, the infant mortality rate was pegged at 146 per 1,000 live births.
The Malawian government has intensified the promotion of low-technology and cost-effective measures such as vaccines against child illnesses, antibiotics to treat respiratory infections, and oral rehydration therapy against diarrhoea.
Other measures include the provision of free insecticide-treated bed nets against malaria, and education in improved family care and breast-feeding practices.
These measures form part of the integrated management of childhood illnesses programme which, together with the expanded programme of immunisation, has shown success in improving child survival. Illnesses such as polio and neonatal tetanus have been virtually eradicated.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is supporting Malawi's efforts to reduce child mortality, along with the Japanese government.
As one of Malawi's development partners, Japan is committed to helping the Southern African country attain the MDGs, including goal four on child mortality. Tokyo could be just the right partner to have when it comes to reducing deaths amongst children: Japanese figures show fewer than two deaths per 1,000 live births.
Kyoji Mizutani, resident representative of the Japanese International Co-operation Agency, describes the child and infant mortality rate in Malawi as "intolerable". Tokyo has provided financial aid for the procurement of drugs and preventive materials.
"Although Malawi has made some progress in reducing the death tolls of pregnant women and of infants, the situation still remains unacceptable," says Mizutani.
Annually, about 73,000 children in Malawi die from preventable diseases. One in every five children dies before she or he is a month old, and one in every eight dies before her or his fifth birthday.
Malnutrition is associated with 54 percent of all children's deaths in Malawi, says the country's former advisor for health, Wesley Sangala. According to him, seven in 10 deaths of under-five children are attributable to diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, measles, malaria and nutritional deficiencies.
His words are echoed by Kusali Kubwalo, assistant communication officer in Malawi for UNICEF. She points out that malnutrition rates among Malawian children have not improved significantly since 1992.
Almost half of all children under the age of five (48 percent) are stunted, 22 percent are underweight, 59 percent suffer from vitamin A deficiency, and 80 percent are anaemic. "We have a very worrying situation and we have to accelerate our efforts to ensure child survival and development," says Kubwalo.
Malawi's Ministry of Health aims to accelerate progress towards achieving the fourth MDG. This will provide hope to Patience, Katarina and many other Malawian women. (END/2006)