Watching President Trump attack the World Health Organization (WHO) last week and place a hold on U.S. funding brought back a terrible memory.
Picture an open grave no more than 3 feet deep, with a mound of yellow clay by its side.
Picture my wife and me holding a 3-week-old dead baby carefully wrapped in a white sheet — the best material we could find in this up-country village, Bembereke, in the Republic of Benin, West Africa.
This baby was not our child, but we had cared for him the past two weeks because his mother died after birth. The staff at Hopital Evangelique asked us to do this because he needed a very still and very quiet home.
His neonatal tetanus caused him to spasm for minutes at a time with the slightest touch or startling noise. So we touched him as little as possible and were as quiet as the distant mountains. We fed him breast milk donated by a local wet nurse.
We prayed and tearfully placed his body on the grave’s damp, cool bottom. A hospital worker shoveled the yellow dirt back into the grave.
We had named him David.
During my fourth year of medical school, I posted a six-week acting internship in the West African nation, Benin, just west of Nigeria. Having majored in French and biology in college, I spoke French fluently and was interested in international public health. This 40-bed hospital welcomed me.
I learned during those six weeks that David’s neonatal tetanus — all neonatal tetanus — is eminently preventable, even in the setting of an unclean birthing environment which had welcomed David to the world while simultaneously infecting him with Clostridium tetani.
Prevention consists simply of vaccinating moms. The antibodies they develop cross the placenta into the baby, offering passive immunity for about six months. That’s long enough to get most infants out of the danger zone until they can get their own vaccine series.
In West Africa, the importance of vaccinations slapped my face on a daily basis. And I made a startling discovery: Many vaccines need to remain frozen in transport to their ultimate destination. In rural Africa, who provided the cold-chain of dry ice to get frozen vaccines from the coastal capital to this hot remote village?
The WHO did. Who else?
Benin is a small county with a venerable heritage. The Kingdom of Benin began in the 12th century and lasted until European colonization in the 19th century. When I was there, it was one of the poorest countries in the world — and still is.
At that time, only 45% of the population was literate. Life expectancy at birth was 59 years old. Infant mortality stood at a troubling 67 per 1,000 births.
The WHO has assisted Benin for many decades, and has made many inroads. The infrastructure it provides for child health has been essential to improving the life expectancy of children under 5.
This global health organization has worked hard to help Benin develop a primary health care system and train a health care work force.
It has provided material and expertise to develop a health information management system, to draw up policies for medication management and to plan resource allocation.
It is actively engaged in HIV, malaria and tuberculosis control. It help scoordinate health partnerships with other non-governmental organizations, the private sector and civil society. And it provides needed infrastructure and personnel for vaccination programs.
Still, I get it. The president was mad.
The WHO made mistakes, underestimating the severity of the coronavirus epidemic in China.
But so did President Trump, conservative media and politicians on both sides of the aisle. Indeed, the president himself praised China’s early containment efforts — despite intelligence briefings he received documenting exactly the opposite.
The president also was upset about criticism from the WHO of his travel bans to China and Europe. But the WHO was simply relying on its half-century of experience with global outbreaks which showed that travel bans can impede international health cooperation and should be as short-lived as possible.
The WHO also said at the time that “such restrictions (should be) proportionate to public health risks.” A pandemic qualifies as a proportionate risk.
It is understandable that President Trump did not like being criticized about his China and Europe travel bans — especially from such a prominent global health organization.
But anger, grudges and pique make poor policy.
Those reactions do not protect the vulnerable of the world. Like David, who died from neonatal tetanus, which the WHO is working hard to prevent … with the help of U.S. funding.
Let the little children come, and do not forbid them, Scripture says. Do not forbid the money that vaccinates them. Do not forbid the funds that provide care for them in utero.
Or that provide infrastructure to keep them healthy so that they will live beyond their first birthday. Or their fifth.
For they belong — babies like David belong — to the Kingdom of Heaven.