Ban Ki Moon is on a health and development focused tour of sub-Saharan Africa this week in support of the UN’s Every Woman, Every Child initiative. This was a program launched at the UN summit in September and resulted in $40 billion worth of commitments from donors and corresponding policy commitments from recipients to promote maternal and children’s health care.

Earlier in the week, Ban visited a rural health clinic in Nigeria. Today, Ban is in Ethiopia to visit a “health extension worker” facility in a rural province to showcase how health care can be effectively delivered to rural villages.

The “health extension worker” is the latest trend in global health.  In 2008, I visited a similar facility when President Clinton was on hand for a tour of a project that his foundation was supporting.  Then, last March, I met some health extension workers in Bangladesh while visiting a program to fight TB in rural communities.

A photo of health extension workers in training I snapped in 2008 in Ethiopia.

The health extension worker (or as they are known in Bangladesh “village volunteers”) are rural villagers’ first point of contact with national health systems. When going to a hospital to see a doctor is not an option because doctors are too few and hospitals are too far away, the health system comes to the village in the form of these “extension” workers. They are almost always young women who have graduated from high school.  After a training period, these women go back to their villages and provide all sorts of health services, from distributing bed nets, to midwifery, to dispensing TB medicines.  These workers are critical nodes in maintaining the health of people in poor and rural communities.

One of the newer trends in global health is to replicate Ethiopia’s health extension worker model in other countries.  They are not a cure-all, but the health extension worker concept is an effective way to bring health services to hard to reach communities.  It is good to see Ban showing his support for these programs.

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