Thursday 22 August 2019

Donncha O'Callaghan in South Sudan: The contrast between our worlds is breathtaking

Life-saving: Donncha helps out with the vaccination programme in South Sudan, part of a polio campaign supported by Unicef Ireland and Fyffes.
Life-saving: Donncha helps out with the vaccination programme in South Sudan, part of a polio campaign supported by Unicef Ireland and Fyffes.
south Sudan

Donncha O'Callaghan

Polio remains a problem in South Sudan, says rugby legend Donncha O'Callaghan, but Irish donations can make a difference.

It's a scorching hot day when I first meet the 'Peace Baby'.

Just 30 minutes old, she is perhaps the youngest citizen in the world's youngest country, South Sudan. She didn't even have a name yet but I am already worried for her future.

Since December 2013, a brutal conflict has torn her home country apart. She was born just days after a tentative peace accord was signed. Her mother, Suzanne, fled her home in Bentiu when violence threatened her life. She now lives in a Protection of Civilians camp, home to 30,000 people living in over-crowded, unsanitary conditions. Every day, she struggles to get enough food and water.

Suzanne is one of the two million people who have been uprooted in South Sudan; more than half of them are children.

Much of South Sudan's infrastructure, including the primary healthcare system, has been eviscerated by the violence. Peace Baby was born in a dusty, tented health centre where Tut Riam Nyoach, the local midwife, cares for his patients with diligence and passion despite the challenging conditions.

I'm here with Unicef Ireland and Fyffes, who are supporting our polio campaign. Polio, once a disease feared around the world, is a global success story for vaccines. Last year, Fyffes helped halt the spread of the disease in Nigeria by providing more than one million polio vaccines. This year, we are focusing on vulnerable hot spots in South Sudan.

The midwife invites me to administer the polio vaccine to Peace Baby. Just three drops on the child's tongue can provide lifelong protection against this deadly disease.

south Sudan
south Sudan

Unicef community health activists go door-to-door (or tent-to-tent) educating mothers about immunisation. This health centre, which is one of many across South Sudan, vaccinates 100 babies a week. In order for the vaccine to be effective, it needs to be kept between two and eight degrees, a challenge in South Sudan's blistering heat. The cold chain process, which keeps vaccines at this temperature from factory to the child, ensures that every child receives a viable vaccination.

Four-thousand miles away, my wife Jenny is pregnant with our fourth child. My three daughters were born safely in Cork, and will have had every opportunity to flourish. Not every child is so fortunate. The contrast between these two different worlds is breathtaking.

Approximately 29,000 children under the age of five die every day, mostly from ­preventable causes. And yet, vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways to help eradicate preventable child deaths, saving two to three million children each year. Through Unicef's partnership with Fyffes, a child receives a life-saving vaccination for every pack of Freddy Fyffes bananas purchased.

Polio is not the only threat to children's well-being. Traditionally, South Sudan is not a place that has experienced food shortages. However, the conflict has reduced the supply of food and prices have skyrocketed. Every two minutes another child becomes severely malnourished.

Last year, Unicef, together with the World Food Programme, averted famine. We are currently scaling up our response to avoid a catastrophic loss of young children's lives. I visit the hospital's malnutrition unit, which treats up to 140 children per month. The excellent clinical staff there put an extra tent outside where malnourished children lie on thin mattresses, with little protection from the sweltering heat.

"Sometimes you think they are not alive," Unicef's nutritional officer, Lana Lubang, says of the children when they arrive.

Sarafina is just four years old. I have a four-year-old at home in Cork, and this little girl was significantly smaller than my daughter. She can't walk or talk. She's obviously suffering from stunted growth due to a lack of adequate food. Her mother has already lost two children to malnutrition. "Is this child going to survive?" her mother worried out loud.

The Unicef staff treat her first with therapeutic milk, and later a specialised fortified peanut paste. "There is no food in the markets or in the gardens. Prices go up and normal people cannot afford food," Lana says.

Recently, South Sudan experienced a cholera outbreak most probably due to poor sanitation facilities. At the height of the outbreak, 35 babies were being treated here every day, receiving IV fluids and antibiotics. Of the 1,400 cases treated, the staff are proud to say that every child recovered.

Later, walking through the camp I happen upon a gang of young lads playing football on a concrete pitch. The camp is so over-crowded that there is nowhere for the children to play. The football pitch is their one opportunity to stay active. Of course I join in!

No matter where I travel with Unicef, sport is always a common language. I play with Philip (15) and his friends Steven and Gadluak.

"Life here is very tough," Philip says, "but at least we are safe."

For Unicef, the football pitch is also an important medium to share information about immunisation campaigns. I am reminded of our mission: we want to vaccinate every single child against polio.

The world has never been in a better position to eradicate this devastating and incurable disease that disproportionately affects the world's most vulnerable children. Global polio-eradication efforts have led to extraordinary progress. Every Irish person can play a role in this mission. For every packet of Freddy Fyffes bananas purchased, the company will donate one life-saving vaccine to Unicef. Join us in halting the spread of polio in South Sudan.

Whenever I travel with Unicef, I see the positive difference that Irish people's donations make in children's lives. Every contribution, no matter how small, matters. By investing in children's futures, we empower them to build a better future for themselves, their families, their communities, and our world.

Thank you for supporting us.

To learn more about Unicef's work for the children of South Sudan, please visit

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