Thursday, October 11, 2012

The lives of children

As a social worker, I hear a lot of stories. Yesterday I sat with a man who told me about the death of his young daughter fifteen years ago. "She died in my hands. I still have flashbacks from those days in the hospital." He stared at his hands, cupping them as though he still held her.  Fifteen years later, the pain was still very real.

I, like many others, tend to use children as examples of the life we can save. I think children represent hope and potential, and we instinctively want to protect them. But there's also a more logical reason: children's lives are easier to protect.

Some of the best health intervention charities (like Against Malaria Foundation and Schistosomiasis Control Initiative) focus on children. Malaria can make anyone sick, but it's most likely to kill children under 5. Children are also more vulnerable to parasitic infections.  Luckily, these things are easy to prevent or treat - much easier than cancer or heart disease, which mostly affect adults.  And because the first five years are the most dangerous, a child who makes it to his fifth birthday is likely to live to see 60, even in poor countries.

When someone dies, I think the worst cost is borne by the survivors. When a child dies at age three, she loses the potential of her life, but her pain is over. But for her parents, the loss lasts the rest of their lives. In most cases, I think the loss of an old person doesn't hurt us as much as the loss of a child.  It is the loss of the future that hurts so much, the loss of someone who was supposed to outlive you.

When I think about saving children's lives, I mostly think about their parents. I think about people like that father, staring at his empty hands.

His child is gone, but there are others we can save.  And it's not just their lives that are spared, but the lives of everyone who loves them.

Photo credit: Ravages / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA