Reporting by Zoe Hogan, ChildFund Timor-Leste
Around the world, little brothers regard their older siblings with a mixture of awe and admiration. In a small town in Timor-Leste, 6-year-old Silvino looks up to his 25-year-old brother, Marcolino, but for a special reason.
A few months ago, Marcolino became a ChildFund Community Health Volunteer, and his new role is to share important health information with his community. He has learned about malaria and dengue prevention, hygiene and the importance of encouraging parents to use the local health clinic.
His training is just one part of a comprehensive maternal and child health project funded by ChildFund Australia and the Australian Agency for International Development. ChildFund is working with local communities and government to enhance health care and knowledge in order to improve the health of children and mothers. In addition to 410 Community Health Volunteers, ChildFund has trained 84 professional health workers and 36 midwives, distributed 6,000 mosquito nets to families and provided vital health training to 312 schoolchildren and more than 21,000 community members.
“What I like most [about being a volunteer] is that I can learn new ideas,” he says. “Before, I didn’t have knowledge about health, but today I do. And I can share it with others who need it.”
Marcolino and Silvino live with their parents and two sisters, Umbelina and Abita, on a small farm near a dry riverbed and a collapsed bridge. Last year, a flood destroyed their house and washed away precious topsoil. Marcolino’s father, Jose, could plant only enough to feed his family. Like others in the area, they simply cannot afford to deal with expensive and debilitating health problems.
So, when Silvino developed a fever, headache and persistent cough in February, Marcolino’s training proved essential. Recognizing that Silvino’s symptoms were potentially serious, Marcolino and his mother took the boy to the nearby government health clinic. With timely access to proper treatment, Silvino recovered quickly and is now back at school. Two mosquito nets from ChildFund are also helping the family to reduce their vulnerability to malaria.
“I worry about my siblings getting sick,” Marcolino says. “It makes me sad.”
His concern is understandable. In 1999, when Marcolino was 12, the conflict preceding Timor-Leste’s independence destroyed many homes and most of the country’s public infrastructure. Without access to health care or basic services, four of Marcolino’s siblings died from respiratory illnesses that year. The youngest was a month old.
“I feel responsible for the children around here and their health,” he says. “They are the same as my brother.”
To date, Marcolino has spoken to 15 local families about how they can prevent common diseases, and he has plans to walk up into the nearby mountains to share the information with another 30 families. Marcolino has also referred about 20 people to the health clinic after identifying symptoms of malaria and dengue. “It’s not too hard to convince people to go to the clinic once they understand [the significance of their symptoms],” he says.
As an older brother, Marcolino looks out for his younger siblings. As a Community Health Volunteer, he’s now helping protect them — and all of the children in the area — from preventable diseases. And it’s obvious that Silvino is pretty impressed with that.