'If he survives' -- memories from Papua New Guinea

Tune in to your local ABC station on the evening of December 16 for a special edition of “20/20” with Diane Sawyer and ABC's Million Moms campaign as they examine modern-day health issues for children and mothers. For more from the ABC Million Moms Challenge, "like" their page on Facebook.

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As a photojournalist with World Vision through much of the 1980s and 1990s, I long ago lost count of the number of rural health clinics I have visited. The vacant looks on the faces of the mothers, too tired and stressed to focus; the babies in their arms, some crying softly, some shrieking in fear and discomfort; others -- too many -- lethargic and still, seemingly lifeless dolls on their parent’s laps or on filthy blankets on the floor of a decaying health facility.

It was hard to look into those tiny faces, some of which I knew wouldn’t survive much longer unless they received urgent medical care, which usually wasn’t available at the time.

I remember one little boy in Papua New Guinea who really grabbed my attention, and my heart. His name was Kuni. I noticed him as I was wandering through a clinic in the rugged north of the country. I actually didn’t see him first; I heard him. He was coughing with a deep, almost paralyzing cough -- followed by the distinctive “whoop” as he breathed back in.

I watched him for several minutes as he repeated the agonizing coughing, until, finally, it subsided. By that time, he was so exhausted that all he could do was lie there, wheezing and hoping the next attack wouldn’t come. But the reality, of course, was that it did.

Four-year-old Kuni and his mother.

As I drew closer, I noticed another ailment. He had scabies -- tiny skin mites that burrow into the skin and deposit their eggs, usually causing an itchy rash. Poor Kuni was covered with the nasty things. I felt so sorry for him, and for his poor mother, who looked almost as miserable as he did.

Here’s another reality: Whooping cough is easily prevented by a vaccine; scabies can be prevented simply by training the parent in good sanitation and hygiene practices, and with clean water.

At the time, I had two little girls of my own. (They are now 21 and 19 years old.) I remember thinking how utterly unthinkable it was for me to imagine my girls with either of these two horrible ailments. Both of these diseases could have been prevented through simple interventions that are part of World Vision’s 7-11 child and maternal health strategy.

As I walked away, I cringed as I heard the coughing start up again. I remember being slightly comforted by the nurse, who said that, if he survived, he would be immune to the disease for the rest of his life.

“If he survives,” I said to myself as I tried to comfort the mother with a forced smile. “If he survives…”

World Vision’s 7-11 strategy targets mothers and their babies with specific interventions, which, when combined, can dramatically reduce preventable childhood deaths.

For more information on the 7-11 strategy, check out these related posts: Worst place to be a mother, best place to be a midwife and What does 7-11 have to do with child and maternal health? 

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