By Dr. David Vanderpool, M.D.
As a surgeon practicing in the U.S., I rarely encountered the issue of infant mortality. While I occasionally saw babies die in the U.S., the overwhelming resources we have at our disposal fortunately made this a rare event. However, after I was called to sell my surgical practice and permanently moved to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, infant mortality became a desperate daily struggle.
Defined as death within the first year of life, infant mortality is an overwhelmingly devastating event for families, communities and society as a whole. The U.S., with all of its resources, has an unenviable infant mortality rate of six deaths per 1000 live births, a relatively poor ranking among the world’s developed countries. This exists for a number of reasons including socio-economic inequalities in healthcare access as well as differences in the definition of live birth.
However, the data in developing countries reflects a much darker vista. Oftentimes babies die at a rate 10 to 100 fold that of developed nations. In Haiti, for example, infant mortality, though improved over the last decade, is still almost 10 times that of the U.S. Tragically, the causes of many of these deaths were successfully addressed many years ago within the borders of the more resource-rich countries, but not here, where daily survival is still a struggle.
People like Yvonne* remind us of the continued desperation so many individuals face. A storm had destroyed the remnants of her mud and stick shack, and soon the rain and wind unabatedly ravaged her family. A single mother of seven, she had sacrificed her own meals to feed her living children. As a result, she had no milk to feed her new baby girl. Having previously lost five children to starvation and disease, she knew all too well what lay ahead for this new child. She took the baby to the orphanage in the adjacent village, hoping it would provide the care for her baby that she couldn’t. The kind face at the front door explained that the orphanage was full and couldn’t take the child. Her worst fears realized, she walked into the darkness, picked up a rock and tragically ended her baby’s suffering.
Though shocking to those in the developed world, and to those of us who value all life as God does, Yvonne’s story is far too common in resource-poor countries. The ongoing disparity in infant mortality between rich and poor countries is a scourge that tragically highlights the human element to these cold statistics.
How is it possible in the 21st century that two countries separated by a mere 90-minute flight can experience such a wide gulf in such a life-and-death issue? To understand the causes of infant mortality is to understand the solutions.
High infant mortality rates revolve around the same issue that is at the root of most problems in the developing world – extreme poverty.
Those who live on less than $1.25 per day suffer privations unimaginable in the U.S. These individuals lack sufficient food to curb their constant gnawing hunger. They quench their thirst with foul-smelling, bacteria-laden water. No access to basic medical care means they suffer and die from easily curable diseases. They often are illiterate and practice destructive cultural norms that only serve to deepen their despair.
These factors were eliminated in the developed world long ago, so it is to these nations we can look for historical context and solutions.
Food is the most basic lifesaving provision, and it’s vitally important pregnant women receive balanced daily nutrition and vitamins. Teaching sustainable farming techniques will help these individuals provide for themselves long-term. With a healthy food supply, mothers will have milk to nourish their babies through that crucial first year.
Two billion people still do not have access to clean water, with most diarrheal diseases affecting infants stemming from this lack. Water purification techniques have become simpler and cheaper; clean water should be everyone’s right.
Affordable healthcare, including routine vaccinations, early detection and proper treatment of common childhood diseases, would significantly reduce infant mortality. Providing women with a clean hospital environment and well-trained medical personnel reduces deaths due to obstructed births.
Finally, practical seminars to educate women about maternal-child health will prevent unnecessary deaths due to dysfunctional cultural norms – many of these running directly counter to a Judeo-Christian belief system. As much as education can do to address physical factors, we also must help these individuals experience a heart change – new life in Christ – to free them from the bondage to sin and dangerous traditions.
Any preventable death is tragic, and we as Christians are called to share our abundant resources to improve the lives of the world’s most vulnerable. By focusing our resources in areas where they can be most effective, we are being wise stewards of the abundances with which we have been blessed. And by caring for these vulnerable populations, we are obeying God’s call to care for the widows and orphans, by intervening to prevent needless deaths of parents and children.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
Dr. David Vanderpool, a trauma surgeon living in Thomazeau, Haiti, is the founder of LiveBeyond, a faith-based, humanitarian organization dedicated to improving the lives of the poor in Haiti.
Photo credit: Michelle D. Milliman / Shutterstock.com