In Opuwo, a village in northwest Namibia, Vemupomambo Tjivinda sits with a mother and infant daughter from the country’s nomadic Ovahimba tribe. As they chat, Vemupomambo gently wraps a coloured plastic tape around the upper arm of the baby while her mother watches intently. The tape, marked with green, yellow and red sections, is a simple tool used by Health Extension Workers (HEWs) to quickly determine if a child is malnourished.
After the baby girl’s arm is measured, Vemupomambo continues to check vital signs, listening to her breathing and checking her heartbeat. He then happily reports that she is healthy. As a HEW, Vemupomambo is at the forefront of ensuring that children in the region under the age of five do not die or become ill from preventable diseases, including malaria, measles or diarrhea. He provides health advice to parents, encouraging them to vaccinate their children, and dispenses free medication, including polio drops and vitamin pills.
Vemupomambo was one of the first Health Extension Workers trained in Namibia in 2012. That year, Teck provided funding to UNICEF for the pilot project in Opuwo, with the goal of training 34 Health Extension Workers to provide basic health care services to children under the age of five in remote and rural regions of Namibia.
Inaccessibility to health care is a major underlying cause of child mortality in Namibia, as most people in rural areas live at least 10 kilometres from the nearest health facility. The deployment of the Health Extension Workers into the Kunene region in 2012 was a critical step in addressing the situation, making it possible to reach households with life-saving interventions for children.
“This initiative has increased health awareness and built local communities’ capacity for greater access, involvement and participation in primary health care interventions,” says Namibia’s Minister of Health and Social Services, Dr. Richard Kamwi.
The two-year pilot project was so successful that in 2013, Namibia’s Ministry of Health committed $18 million to scale up the Health Extension Worker project across the country. Better yet, Health Extension Workers are no longer volunteers; they now receive a government salary for their work.
Today, approximately 1,500 Health Extension Workers provide basic health care services to thousands of Namibians, bridging the gap between rural communities and urban health facilities, helping to reduce child mortality in the region.
Health Extension Worker 101
- HEWs are at least 23 years old and have completed their 10th grade of schooling.
- HEWs receive six months of training and are now paid a government salary.
- HEWs are supervised by nurses or health professionals based at health centres in a nearby town.
- HEWs are responsible for providing family health services, improving disease prevention and control, and promoting improved hygiene and sanitation.
- HEWs conduct home visits during a woman’s pregnancy and the first week of life to provide breastfeeding counselling and cord care, as well as identify any health issues for the mother and newborn that need further attention.