A ReachAnother Production: In Ethiopia each year, at least 2,500 children are born with hydrocephalus (aka “water on the brain”) and/or spina bifida, both neural tube birth defects that develop within the first ten days of pregnancy. Traditionally, most Ethiopian babies born with these birth defects died before their second birthday. Today, however, ReachAnother Foundation (RAF) helps these children get life-saving surgery, which, when performed early enough, will allow them to grow into normal adults.
The primary cause of neural tube birth defects is a lack of sufficient folic acid (a B vitamin) in the mother’s diet. Folic acid occurs naturally in leafy green vegetables, and is added to bread products in the Western world. In Ethiopia, the main diet consists of injera, a bread made of teff, supplemented with some meat, vegetables and potatoes. Many people are food insecure. Therefore, few expectant mothers receive sufficient folic acid in their daily diets, and a supplement is needed.
RAF is working with Ethiopian public health officials and international charity organizations to educate women on the benefits of taking folic acid supplements as part of their daily routines. Unfortunately, with more than 30 million women of child-bearing age, it will take years before folic acid becomes a dietary staple.
In the meantime, life-saving surgery (inserting a shunt into the cranial cavity or closing an open spine) provides the best cure for hydrocephalus and spina bifida. If diagnosed and treated early enough, these babies can expect to lead a normal life.
In cooperation with neurosurgeons Drs. Hagos, Abat and Mersha, the first graduates from the Addis Ababa University’s neurosurgeon training program, RAF launched a Hydrocephalus Campaign for Ethiopia in 2011, an innovative initiative that makes operating room facilities available on weekends for surgery on these overlooked babies. By the end of 2015 RAF had facilitated surgery for more than 1000 babies.
RAF’s long-range goal is to fund 5,000 corrective surgeries by 2020. These numbers are attainable because Addis Ababa University is expected to graduate 25 neurosurgeons by 2020.