Friday 23 March 2018

Rugby star in shock at babies' struggle

Donncha O'Callaghan and executive director of UNICEF
Melanie Verwoerd with one-day-old Annie Musakura
Donncha O'Callaghan and executive director of UNICEF Melanie Verwoerd with one-day-old Annie Musakura
The sportsman watches as Dr Chimhuya shares oxygen among nine premature babies

Grainne Cunningham

IT was a scene no parent can bear -- nine newborn babies struggling to breathe while a doctor shares one oxygen mask between them.

Instead of being protected from the risk of infection in incubators, the day-old infants are laid side by side on a table.

This is the scene which shocked rugby star and father-of-one Donncha O'Callaghan who was visiting Harare General Hospital in Zimbabwe, during a five day visit there as a UNICEF ambassador.

The Munster lock said he could not help comparing the frightening lack of basic equipment in the hospital with his own very different experience last August when his daughter Sophie was born.

"Sometimes it's not 'til you see firsthand a situation where you are in a room with day-old babies struggling to breathe without incubators that you realise how well off we really are. I shudder to think of what might have happened if my wife Jenny had to give birth to our daughter Sophie in such conditions," said O'Callaghan.

Executive Director of UNICEF Melanie Verwoerd, who accompanied Donncha on the trip, said Irish support to Zimbabwe had helped the organisation stem the country's worst cholera epidemic that killed 4,000 people.

"To stand by and not help the children living there is not an option, we have to continue to support them," she said.

Elsewhere in the hospital, 32 newborn infants and their mothers shared one room. In the labour ward, 30 expectant mothers were being cared for by just two midwives.

The night before O'Callaghan arrived, six babies did not survive past delivery in the hospital where 30 newborns die every week.

"I know times are hard at home but we take so many things for granted," he said.

Harare General Hospital was considered a centre of excellence when it opened 50 years ago but Zimbabwe's instability has resulted in its decline to a shadow of its former glory.

The father of one also visited a rural hospital supported by UNICEF where he launched a fundraising drive to supply bicycles to health workers so they can serve over 11,800 people.

Speaking after his thought-provoking visit to Harare, he urged people to support UNICEF's drive to provide Harare General Hospital with proper cots for the babies and to supply bicycles.

O'Callaghan said he left feeling hopeful that services for women and children were getting better.

However, he stressed that there remained an urgent need for more funding.

To donate to UNICEF Ireland's work in Zimbabwe, visit

Irish Independent

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