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Nepal: On World Pneumonia Day, remember Sagar

Every time I meet people involved with our work I return home enriched by the stories I’ve heard. Some stories make me smile and some break my heart.

Sagar’s story was the one that brought me a lot of joy last December.  On my first trip to Bardiya district in mid-western Nepal in December 2009, I met a mother, Prem Kumari, and a female community health volunteer, Laliya, who saved Prem Kumari’s son Sagar’s life.

Prem Kumari had a baby boy in early September 2009. They named him Sagar, which means ocean. When I reached her home, she looked peaceful and happy as she played with her baby, sitting on a straw mat enjoying the winter sunshine. She also has a four-year-old daughter.

When Sagar was born, the entire neighbourhood gathered in her house – not to congratulate her, but to see the baby which, it was rumoured, had neither cried nor moved after being born.

Prem Kumari had received a lot of care during the pregnancy, taking her vitamins and iron, receiving four mandatory check-ups, tetanus vaccinations and learning all that she could about pregnancy and childbirth from Laliya.

Her community health volunteer, Laliya, dropped by at her house constantly to check up on her, encouraging her to go to the birthing centre to have her baby. But Sagar was born at home like 80% of all babies born in Nepal.

On hearing that Prem Kumari was having the baby at home, Laliya rushed to her house and found that the baby was not moving or crying. Laliya had recently received community based newborn care training in her village through Save the Children’s Saving Newborn Lives programme.

During the seven-day training she had received a training to administer bag and mask techniques to revive babies suffering from birth asphyxia – one of the three killers of infants. Laliya tried stimulation and suction before getting permission from the family to revive the baby with a bag and mask (a hand-held device to resuscitate the infant).

By this time Prem Kumari had given up all hope.

Laliya tried using a bag and mask on the newborn and, on the third try, the baby cried out and started breathing. By saving Sagar’s life, Laliya became the first community health volunteer in Nepal to save a baby’s life through using a bag and mask.

When Laliya told me how she saved Sagar, she could not contain her happiness for having saved a baby. Laliya, however, was concerned about the pneumonia that began to affect Sagar soon after his birth.

I saw that the baby had a cannula (a tube that can be inserted into the body, often for the delivery or removal of fluid) fitted on Sagar’s wrist and he was breathing very heavily.

The mother explained that she had to take her baby to the health post everyday so he could receive shots to treat the pneumonia.

This was the happy story I brought back home last year. However, two months later, when I followed up on how he was doing, our field officer informed us that the baby had passed away a few days before.

As I get ready to participate in this year’s World Pneumonia Day on November 12, I can’t help but remember Sagar who became one of the 23% of all children under 5 who succumb to pneumonia every year in Nepal.

This is why we need World Pneumonia Day; to remind people who can make a difference that children are still dying from a very curable disease.

In Nepal, there has been significant progress made to reduce infant mortality rates – there are now ‘only’ 41 deaths per 1000 live births.

But Prem Kumari doesn’t know – or likely care – that progress has been made. She only knows that she’s lost a child.

For every mother and family, every life lost is a tragedy.

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