More mechanisms for ensuring sound child health Editorial
Guyana Chronicle
July 22, 2002

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ALTHOUGH most infants today benefit from a range of advances in preventative medicine, two recent developments in this country give tangible hope for further improved child health. One is the decision by Government to make available to mothers at risk the medication that would prevent them passing on HIV/AIDS to their newborns. This procedure, if properly implemented, would save hundreds, if not thousands of lives of young children, who would otherwise be condemned to poor health and certain death. With the grim reality that Guyana has one of the highest HIV infection rates, the move to save the babies of HIV-positive women would ensure that at least the children would be given a chance at living a full life although it is likely that they would be motherless.

The other positive development, although not yet in place, holds tremendous promise for the general health and well-being of children. Just last week, Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy disclosed at a workshop on leadership skills for persons living with disabilities that a group of specialists currently in Guyana to work with the disabled would soon be looking at programmes, such as the screening of newborn babies to ascertain signs of early disabling diseases they might have. If some diseases are detected at an early stage, he said, then the necessary effective management programmes could be implemented to deal with such cases. The Minister said that one challenge facing his Ministry is the introduction of early childhood programmes that could detect not only indications of disability but also other congenital diseases. The New National Health Plan, which will be released in a few weeks, Dr Ramsammy said, will address the subject of disability relating to children.

When this programme to screen newborns comes into being, it would put this country almost on a footing with the health mechanisms that exist in the industrialised world. In countries such as the United States of America, the United Kingdom, the countries of eastern and western Europe and Cuba, babies are routinely tested for a range of conditions. In some cases where tests prove inconclusive, parents are required to submit their months-old babies for further screening at specific times. In this way, many conditions are identified and the necessary medical regimens put in place where possible to correct or manage these conditions.

Some conditions such as Down’s Syndrome could be diagnosed before the birth of the baby and some institutions offer parents the option of abortion. However, at present, conditions such as Down’s Syndrome and autism are not the tragic and embarrassing afflictions they were a generation ago; for with advanced medication and aggressive therapeutic management, children identified with these conditions proceed into adulthood and live near normal lives. The persons who were once hidden from public view because of their abnormalities are now encouraged to acquire social and income-earning skills so that they could be contributing members of society.

Children’s health care has come a long way in the last half century. In the days of the 1950s, diseases such as whooping cough, mumps, chicken pox, measles were accepted as part of the childhood growing process. Typhoid fever and tuberculosis were the enemies of both children and adults and only the lucky ones survived. In the early 1960s, an epidemic of poliomyelitis, savaged sections of Guyana and left dozens of youths shackled to leg braces and surgical boots for the rest of their lives. Since the early 1970s babies and young children in this country have been given a regimen of vaccines, which protect them from most of these incapacitating scourges.

The decision by the health authorities to introduce screening mechanisms to identify certain medical conditions in babies will most assuredly usher in another level of sound health and well-being for the children of the nation.