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Mothers and babies

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015
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Bimala Majhi, 21, with her baby born just five days after the earthquake is now living in a shelter next to the ruins of what was once her house. Photo: Om Astha Rai

Om Astha Rai in Sindhupalchok

The April earthquake not only flattened Januka Chhetri’s house but also damaged a health post she used to visit before having her baby. She was eight-month pregnant when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck central Nepal, destroying over 600,000 houses and 619 health facilities.

Chhetri spent a few nights under a tent and then shifted to her maternal home in Melamchi. Her delivery date was nearing, but the village’s only health post had been destroyed. Waiting there could have cost her life.

“No one came to help us up there, so I moved down,” says the 22-year-old mother.

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Januka Chhetri, 22, moved to her maternal home in Melamchi after the earthquake hoping to get relief supplies. Photo: Om Astha Rai

A month after the earthquake, she gave birth to a baby boy, her second child after a two-year-old daughter. She is now taking shelter in a shed made of wooden beams and roofing sheets salvaged from the ruins of her mother’s house. Her husband is in Kathmandu trying to land a driving job in the Gulf.

In the first month after the earthquake there were lots of relief agencies and volunteer groups in Melamchi. But more than three months later, the emergency  workers have left and there are no more supplies coming in. “No one is helping anymore these days,” she says. “It feels like we are forgotten.”

In Kathmandu, earthquake survivors are falling off the radar as political parties are busy trying to finish the constitution, and set up the Reconstruction Authority. But here in Sindhupalchok, the needs of babies and young mothers like Januka Chhetri, and pregnant women are more acute than ever.

Bimala Majhi, 21, was nine-month pregnant when the earthquake struck. Their home was destroyed, and her labour pains started while camping out in the open. Her husband was a driver in western Nepal and could not get back home.

She was rushed by her relatives to Melamchi, where she delivered her first child just five days after the earthquake. When her husband returned, their house was just a pile of rubble but the arrival of a new family member had brought joy.

They received rice, tarpaulin sheets, construction tools like hammer and shovel and Rs 15,000 to build a temporary shelter. But since then, nothing. Her husband has gone back to work, and she hopes he will send money. “We are still surviving on relief food, but it will only last another two weeks,” Majhi says.

Although relief supplies have stopped, survivors have found ways to feed themselves. They are now preparing to harvest corn, rebuild water mills and plant paddy. But new mothers and newborns needing more nutritious foods are left to fend for themselves.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, the United Nations feared that the disaster could undo Nepal’s progress in maternal and child health because hundreds of heath facilities were damaged, pregnant women were living in tents and there was not sufficient nutritious food.

But the Child Health Division’s Chief Krishna Poudel says: “Early indicators show the earthquake has not impeded Nepal’s progress in maternal and child health. We don’t think infant mortality rate has gone up after the earthquake.”

Save the Children estimates that 29,332 babies have been born in the 14 earthquake-hit districts since 25 April. Another 87,994 babies are expected to be born in the coming year.  Although Nepal’s infant mortality rate has come down by more than half in the last 15 years, it has plateaued off and the incidence of neonatal mortality (babies that die before 28 days) is still a high 32 per 1,000 live births.

“What we did in the first three months was satisfactory,” says Anjana KC, who is working with Save the Children’s Saving Newborn Lives (SNL) project. “But the risk remains, and we should not divert our attention from new mothers and newborn babies.”

The earthquake has completely damaged 285 health facilities while 334 more were damaged partially. Rebuilding these facilities and restoring services are necessary to prevent neonatal deaths as babies are born in shelters in the remote parts of the 14 districts.

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