Waking up in a hotel room in West Africa to find myself entangled in a mosquito net was a slightly surreal experience. We had arrived in Yaoundé at 4am to a city in darkness, so finding my bearings was difficult and I was looking forward to seeing Cameroon in daylight for the very first time.
Our day began with a meeting at the UNICEF Cameroon office where we were warmly welcomed by the team, some of whom would be spending the next few days with us as we travelled around the area. From my brief glimpse at the surrounding scenery, the rich red African soil, the constant beeping of car horns, the bright yellow taxis and a city buzzing with people, it was like nothing I had experienced before and I was keen to see more.
The UNICEF Cameroon team briefed us about their country and gave us some essential security information along with facts about the Eastern region where we would be spending the majority of our time.
All our journeys would be made in a convoy of 4×4 UNICEF vehicles fitted with radio communications and we could only travel between the hours of 6 am and 6p m to areas given prior security clearance by the UN. Any signs of political instability in areas of Cameroon bordering Chad and the Central African Republic would necessitate an armed escort. This is the reality of travelling to certain parts of Africa.
The statistics presented to us about infant and maternal mortality rates in Cameroon made depressing reading. Since 2002 however, with the support of partners and UNICEF, the Cameroon Government has been working towards a long-term plan for the elimination of maternal and newborn tetanus campaigns through the implementation of vaccination campaigns targeting women aged 15-49 years in 102 high risk health districts out of the 174 in the country, to try and reduce the number of deaths from the disease and help lower the country’s infant and maternal mortality rates.
Huge progress has been made since 2002 and during our trip, it was evident that support from the Pampers and UNICEF partnership was proving effective in helping the country work towards the goal of eliminating the disease*.
- Life expectancy at birth is 51 years
- The under-five mortality rate (probability of dying between birth and five years of age) is 144 per 1000 live births, compared with 6 per 1000 live births in the UK
- The infant mortality rate (probability of dying between birth and one year of age) is 74 per 1000 live births, compared with 5 per 1000 live births in the UK
- The maternal mortality rate is 669 per 100,000 live births, compared with 8 per 100,000 live births in the UK
- 77% of newborns are now protected again tetanus
- Pampers has donated over $1 million to help support the elimination of MNT in Cameroon and contributed over half the funding received for the MNT elimination programme in Cameroon since 2008
From Yaoundé we took a four-hour drive to Bertoua in the Eastern region and I was able to see Africa properly for the first time. I was struck by the obvious poverty as the larger buildings of the urban centre made way for mile upon mile of very basic mud huts.
Groups of children could be seen playing outside in the soil. Many others could be seen selling their wares at the roadside or walking the long distances from the surrounding farms to their homes with essential food supplies for their families.
I had witnessed nothing like it before. The most basic mud huts had no running water, no electricity, poor sanitation and no refrigeration and were typically home to very large families, the majority of whom were children. This is a young country. We would see very few people aged over 50 during our trip. Yet these children are living in conditions which would be considered completely unacceptable in the developed world. In Cameroon alone, 33% of the population live below the International Poverty Line of $1.25 a day *.
It is a sobering experience and a world away from life with my daughter in the UK. The following day I would get the rare opportunity to travel to some of the remotest parts of Cameroon, to meet the villagers who live in conditions like these, to sit in their homes and find out firsthand what life is really like for them. I would see the conditions in which women give birth and why being vaccinated against tetanus really is a matter of life and death.