How Poverty Affects Health

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child poverty
woman holding her child

Future mothers receive support for their pregnancies and parenting skills at our local partner Un Nuevo Caminar in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Helping improve children’s health is a key component of ChildFund’s work, because without good health and access to medical care, children can’t achieve their full potential. Poverty and health are closely related; without nearby healthcare facilities with trained staff, as well as access to clean water and nutritious food, people are far more susceptible to disease, malnutrition and infections.

We approach children’s health from several angles, including a focus on maternal health, treating malnutrition and preventing malaria, which kills a child each minute. Malnutrition, which is common in children under the age of 5 in developing countries, plays a role in at least half of the world’s child deaths each year. When children don’t get the nutrients they need, they’re more vulnerable to disease, including malaria, which is preventable and curable.  

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Improving Maternal and Child Health

A child’s strong start in life depends on her mother’s healthy pregnancy and the infant’s safe delivery, according to the principles of the “1,000 days window.” Women need high-quality prenatal care and good nutrition during pregnancy, which can be extremely challenging for women living in poverty. They may not have a nearby health center with trained nurses, midwives or doctors, and in some places, they may lack the nutrients necessary to deliver a healthy, full-term infant.

mother with child

Mothers in Cochabamba, Bolivia have the opportunity to receive monthly prenatal appointments, screenings and checkups.

ChildFund supports healthy pregnancies and safe deliveries both as a woman’s right and a prerequisite to a child’s strong start in life. We view the availability and quality of prenatal and birth services as a reflection of the value that a society accords to women and children.

Improving maternal and child health is one of the most effective ways to improve standards of health in developing countries.

ChildFund works in some of Latin America's poorest countries to help families break the cycle of generational poverty. Honduras has the highest level of economic inequality in Latin America, according to the World Bank economists' report in 2014. To address needs in remote, impoverished communities, ChildFund supports local healthcare facilities that allow families to seek basic care near their homes, instead of being forced to travel hours to a hospital. At health posts, patients see trained birth attendants, and guide mothers, ChildFund-trained volunteers from the community,  make house calls to see mothers and their children, educating them about good nutrition, breastfeeding and helping their infants meet developmental benchmarks. As a result, maternal health has improved, and the country’s under-5 mortality rate has decreased from 29 children per 1,000 live births in 2006 to 20 children in 2015.

In Bolivia, where maternal and infant mortality rates are high, ChildFund-supported health facilities offer prenatal appointments and monitoring at zero cost to mothers. But, more than just checking the physical development of the babies and the vital statistics of the mothers, we also support the mother’s attachment to her baby — an emotional bond that, a doctor explained, is just as important as physical development.

Eliminating Malnutrition

  • measuring a child's upper arm for malnutrition/underweight
  •  mother and sons sitting on couch indoors
  • mother holding daughter woman holding baby outdoors next to doorway beside house
  • man and woman outdoors giving food from hands into bag

Child malnutrition is one of the biggest issues at the intersection of poverty and health. Malnourished children are more susceptible to disease, growth defects, infections and even death. Severe malnutrition interferes with children's cognitive development, placing them at a serious disadvantage in school and in other areas.  Making sure that children and their families have healthy, nutritious and affordable food is one of ChildFund's most important objectives.

The 1,000 days that begin with pregnancy and lead up to a child's second birthday are the most important in terms of a child’s physical and mental development. Children stand a much better chance of going on to live healthy, happy lives when they receive the nutrients and minerals they need during this time frame. However, for millions of children around the world, malnutrition poses a great threat to their well-being.

Approximately 3.1 million children died in 2011 from causes related to malnutrition. Approximately 45 percent of all child deaths worldwide stem from undernutrition. When children do not get the nutrients they need, they are much more likely to become ill, as their immune systems are not strong enough to fight off infections and diseases. They’re particularly vulnerable to diarrhea, malaria, pneumonia and measles, and those who survive the first five years of life may be affected the rest of their lives by stunting and wasting, physical conditions that are common in Asia and Africa.

ChildFund’s work to reduce malnutrition varies, based on community needs. In Kenya, Uganda and especially Ethiopia, which is suffering a drought-related food shortage, many children are at high risk of developmental delay caused by early and prenatal malnutrition, caused when a pregnant woman doesn't get proper nourishment. In emergency situations, like in Ethiopia’s communities affected by the food shortage, we provide access to high-nutrition foods and water, and elsewhere, we work with families to give them the information and tools they need to grow their own vegetables and fruit, or raise livestock that provide protein and milk. 

Fighting Malaria

malaria infographic  

Despite measurable gains in prevention and treatment over the past 20 years, malaria remains one of the world's deadliest diseases. It caused 438,000 deaths in 2015, according to the World Health Organization. Malaria’s greatest impact is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, where 80 percent of deadly cases occurred, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Approximately 1.2 million children in west and central Africa  take antimalarial drugs during the rainy season to prevent malaria infection, which is spread by mosquitoes carrying the malaria parasite. Although several immunization programs were launched in the mid-20th century to fight the spread of  malaria, these initiatives were suspended because of rising resistance against medication and the associated costs of maintaining these programs.

Fighting malaria is one of the greatest challenges facing health officials in sub-Saharan Africa. According to Robert Newman, director of the malaria program at the World Health Organization, a failure to contain the malarial threat in sub-Saharan Africa could result in a widespread resurgence of the disease. This, in turn, could lead to the loss of even more lives, particularly children living in poverty. Scientists are still working to find solutions to the problem, including researching new malaria drugs, but eliminating the disease is still a long way away.

One low-cost and fairly simple way to help families is by making medicated mosquito nets available to them. You can learn more here about how to help children in malaria-prone nations.

Poverty is both a cause and consequence of poor health. The close relationship between poverty and health means that improving health standards significantly increases a community or nation’s chances of escaping generational poverty, particularly for children. Without a healthy population, little progress can be made in the fight against poverty.