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Health Workers Can Help Stamp Out Poverty

This piece was originally published on InterAction’s blog on 10/17/12.

They say wealthier is healthier, and there’s evidence to back that up.

While money alone can’t buy good health, the poor are significantly more likely to experience poor health. But like many of poverty’s symptoms, poor health can also cause poverty.

A severe illness can obliterate a family’s financial health, whether from the cost of treatment or a loss of livelihood. You may know someone who lost a job, a home or financial security after receiving treatment for a devastating diagnosis.

But it’s not just catastrophic illnesses that prime the poverty pump. There are nearly 1 billion people in the world who have no access to health care. That means that "simple" conditions such as diarrhea and respiratory infections often turn serious or even deadly. Noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease lead to missed workdays and disability. Women die in childbirth from common and treatable obstetric emergencies. Couples have no access to contraceptives and have more children than they can support.

Sick children miss school. Parents face difficult decisions when they can no longer provide for their families. Food, resources and opportunities are divided among too many family members, and the cycle of poverty continues.

Such cycles are hard to break. But as this year’s theme for the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty highlights, it can be done with collaboration. By working together across sectors, we can make progress. Over the last decade, millions have overcome extreme poverty and gained better access to health care and education. And change agents within the different fields each play a part in breaking the cycle.

Health Workers Can Catalyze Change

At IntraHealth, we champion health workers and understand that they are change agents in their communities.

Health workers are safeguards of the wellbeing of their communities. They can be the difference between a child who gets Artemisinin-combination therapy early and a child who suffers for months with malarial fevers and aches. They can give a couple the information and contraceptives they need to plan their family. They can prevent a woman from bleeding to death after childbirth by practicing active management of the third stage of labor, thereby allowing the mother to continue to raise and provide for her children.

Health workers also tend to be respected members of their communities. They are role models and confidants. They are trusted. Frontline health workers often know what makes their communities tick. And so their potential influence goes far beyond health.

An interaction with a trusted health worker may inspire a young girl to work hard at school to become a doctor or nurse, persuade a couple to send their daughters as well as their sons to school or convince a community to install latrines or to invest in repairing a water pump. They may put pressure on their supervisors to provide more training opportunities, staff and remote support for health care facilities in rural areas, and they may advocate for better facilities, supplies and living conditions that will help them do their jobs as effectively as possible.

Health workers can be partners and leaders in their communities’ efforts to eradicate poverty. They are key informants for any community intervention. And while outside resources and global efforts will be necessary to eradicate poverty, families and communities are the ones who ultimately come together to rise above it – and health workers are perfectly positioned to help their communities change.

Every individual deserves the opportunity to prosper. Every parent deserves to have someone to turn to when a child becomes seriously ill. And every community deserves to have health workers who are present, ready, connected and safe.

According to the World Health Organization, there is a shortage of more than 4 million doctors, nurses and midwives worldwide, and 57 countries have crisis-level shortages. As a result, millions of people struggle daily to overcome preventable and treatable conditions, and innumerable communities lack a fundamental component of overcoming poverty.

Without a healthy community, there can be no prosperous community.