May 13, 2013 |

Dr. Alfred Ochola: so no child perishes

Dr. Alfred Ochola will speak about his work to save children’s lives in Kenya at PATH’s Breakfast for Global Health on May 21. The Breakfast is an annual event in our headquarters city of Seattle, Washington, that raises funds for some of our most innovative work.

Smiling man dances while surrounded by a line of dancing men and women.
Dr. Alfred Ochola will speak at PATH’s annual Breakfast for Global Health. Photo: PATH/Eric Becker.

“Hello? Are we together?” Dr. Alfred Ochola, PATH’s technical advisor for child survival and development in Kenya, stands in the center of a circle of public officials, health workers, and community members gathered in a grassy field. In hearty call-and-response form, the crowd answers him: “Yes!”

Alfred, who leads our work in Kenya to control diarrheal disease, malaria, and other childhood illnesses, has been talking about one of the country’s most stubborn killers. He’s so passionate about the topic that he is often introduced as “Dr. Stop Diarrhea.”

It’s hard to imagine that he almost missed his life’s calling.

Finding a life’s mission

As a college student in Nakuru, Kenya, Alfred was a standout athlete who played basketball, soccer, and volleyball. Military officials recruited him after watching him at several sporting matches. Alfred had already begun his studies in medicine, but he accepted, impressed by all the army was willing to offer him.

During the second week of boot camp, Alfred’s father paid him a visit. “I have other sons who should join the army, but not you,” his father told him. “Your heart is with the patients and that is where you belong.”

Alfred’s family and friends had always recognized his sensitivity and compassion toward other people. Those traits inspired his parents to pray for Alfred to stay in medicine. Two days later, Alfred asked to be dismissed from the army and returned to medical school, where he specialized in pediatrics.

Tackling a leading childhood killer

Now Alfred is an expert at saving young lives—and engaging an audience. His passion is putting solutions in people’s hands.

In particular, he’s worked hard to prevent and treat diarrhea in young children, who are especially susceptible to the illness. Diarrheal disease is the second leading killer of children in Kenya. “It hurts me,” Alfred says, “because diarrhea is controllable. It is preventable.”

So he shares strategies and solutions with the health workers in the assembled crowd and encourages parents to follow simple steps to protect their children. Alfred’s leadership and those “simple” steps have made a tremendous difference.

Health centers in western Kenya now have rehydration corners where mothers learn to give oral rehydration therapy to children with diarrhea. Community members have been trained to reach out to their neighbors with lifesaving information about breastfeeding, hygiene, and clean water.

And there is good news, Alfred tells the crowd. “We have worked so hard, and diarrhea is going down.”

Teaching people today to save children tomorrow

Alfred is intimately aware of the threats faced by African children: he lost two of his siblings to measles, had malaria multiple times as a child, and has witnessed how deadly diarrhea can be. As the father of six children, he understands the pain parents can feel when their children are suffering. And so he embraces every opportunity to talk about a topic that others avoid.

“Each time you get this opportunity, you must always take it,” he says. “If I don’t teach people today, we may lose some children tomorrow.”

After almost four decades of caring and advocating for children, the sensitivity and compassion his parents saw in Alfred still shines. At the gathering, he asks a group of young women to stand next to him.

“At one point, these were young girls,” he reminds the crowd. “If they all died as children, we would not have these beautiful young women. Each child is important and needs to be nurtured.”

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