DAR ES SALAAM, Aug. 18 (Xinhua) -- A visit to one of the referral hospitals in Tanzania's commercial hub of Dar es Salaam in late March changed the life of a 25-year-old mother of two children aged three and eight.
Mariam Mwakabungu, a resident of Kinyerezi in Ubungo District, had visited her friend at the Amana regional referral hospital that had given birth to premature twins, and as she was about to leave she saw a nurse attending to a premature baby.
"I asked the nurse where the baby's mother was and she told me that she was sick. The nurse asked me whether I could help give the baby kangaroo mother care. I accepted the offer in the blink of an eye," Mwakabungu told Xinhua in an interview.
Kangaroo mother care is a technique that helps to keep a low birth-weight baby warm by carrying the baby with skin-to-skin contact which provides protection from infection.
Mwakabungu said she gave the nurse her telephone number, and she went home asking the nurse to call her when she needed her kangaroo mother care services.
"The nurse called me and I went straight to the hospital where I started giving the service to the baby who, according to doctors, had weighed one kilogram since it was born a month earlier," said Mwakabungu whose two children were born weighing more than 3 kilograms each.
She said she stayed with the baby for one week and her weight increased to the required standard which is above 2.5 kilograms and the baby was later handed over to an orphanage after her sick mother had abandoned it.
She said as she had completed giving the kangaroo mother care to the baby, two more abandoned premature babies were brought to her and she continued giving the service to them.
"It is a very tiresome undertaking because you have to carry the baby with skin-to-skin contact for 24 hours even when eating," she said, adding that the only time one loses contact with the baby is when one goes to a washroom.
She said she gave the service on a voluntary basis, adding that the hospital only provided her with breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bus fare when she went home for a short rest.
She said she used to be a food vendor and sell second-hand clothes but she dropped the two businesses after she had run out of capital.
Soft-spoken Mwakabungu thanked her husband for allowing her to volunteer to take care of premature babies. "When I told my husband what I was doing he said it was fine because I was saving the lives of the babies."
She said between late March and July she had given the service to three premature babies that have been handed over to an orphanage and now she was looking after a fourth premature baby that she was given to her on Aug. 3.
Mwakabungu said her parents died when she was five years old, and years later she has to drop out of school because her grandmother that was looking after her had no money to pay for her school fees.
She said her work was appreciated by Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan who recently awarded her a monetary prize.
"Top officials of the hospital visited me as I clutched a premature baby and handed me the money saying it is my present from the president. I was overjoyed beyond explanation," she told Xinhua.
The president also directed the Ministry of Health to employ her permanently as a nurse and the process to employ her has already started, said Sarah Simba, the hospital's head of communications.
Mwakabungu suggested that the government should construct a special structure for accommodating premature children, especially those that have been abandoned by their mothers, from their infancy to adolescence to enable them to realize their life dreams.
Mary Machemba, a nursing officer in charge of the Neonatal Unit at the Amana regional referral hospital, described Mwakabungu as an "angel dedicated to saving the lives of abandoned premature babies".
She said Mwakabungu decided to stop doing her business and volunteered to save the tedious task of caring for premature babies.
Machemba said the hospital's neonatal unit admits between 70 and 80 premature babies a month but the unit has only six beds.
"That is why we are encouraging mothers to use the kangaroo mother care technique which is simple and cost-effective," she said.
She added, "Simple cost-effective solutions such as kangaroo mother care can make a big difference in those vital first days of a small baby's life."
Machemba, a professional nurse with over 25 years of work experience, described a premature baby as one that weighs below 1.5 kilograms at birth, adding that a normal baby usually weighs around 2.5 kilograms at birth.
She said, "A premature baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy are completed."
"Kangaroo mother care is both simple and cost-effective because it does not need a machine, but just a skin-to-skin bond between mother and child to provide this little baby with the needed warmth," she said.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund data, over 200,000 children are born prematurely in Tanzania every year, and approximately 9,500 of them fail to survive. ■