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 You are in: Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs > Office of International Women's Issues > Remarks > 2001-2005 International Women's Issues Remarks

Remarks at Unveiling of the Afghan Family Health Book

Tommy Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Washington, DC
August 3, 2004

Good morning. Thank you all for coming. I am pleased to share the stage with my friends and colleagues, Dr. Paula Dobriansky, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs; the Honorable Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghan Ambassador; Mr. Tom Kalinske, CEO of LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc.; and Michael Van Dusen for welcoming us to the beautiful Woodrow Wilson Center.

I particularly want to thank Dr. Howard Zucker who spearheaded this effort and has worked tirelessly to carry it successfully from conception to delivery. Also Jerry and Cathy Weiner, who gave us the idea for this book, and their daughter, Dr. Kim Weiner, who consulted with us to produce it.

We gather here today in a spirit of international unity. And in this spirit, I’m pleased to unveil a great humanitarian act that will touch the lives of millions of people on the other side of the world: the Afghan Family Health Book.

Over the past 4 years, I have been blessed with many opportunities to travel around the globe, and I have visited Afghanistan three times. From my first trip in 2002, I noticed something special about the people there. They are kind and giving individuals and such gracious hosts. They also have a true love of their country. And though war and civil strife have left their country in ruin, these challenges have not dimmed the sparkle in the Afghan people’s eyes. Afghan women and men have a passion for rebuilding their nation. And America is here to help in that mission.

Clearly, the problems before us are grave. Decades of oppression have crippled Afghanistan’s public health infrastructure and left great suffering among the people. The health conditions are absolutely deplorable. Consider these statistics: The average life expectancy in Afghanistan is just 35 years—-that’s less than half the life expectancy in the United States. One out of four Afghan children will die before age five. The conditions are particularly challenging for Afghan women, because Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. There are 1,600 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. Sixteen hundred! By comparison, the rate in the United States is only about 7 deaths per 100,000.

Many of these problems stem from the fact that 75% of the population lacks access to safe drinking water and 90% are without adequate sanitation systems. And another great barrier to better health is illiteracy. Only half of all Afghan men are literate. And worse, only 20% of Afghan women are literate. These conditions prevent people from learning basic information on nutrition, hygiene, and infectious diseases, let alone prenatal care and childbirth.

That’s where the Afghan Family Health books come in. These innovative learning tools harness the best products in the free marketplace, bringing new ideas to solve long-standing problems. Thanks to a fantastic public-private partnership with LeapFrog Enterprises, we have designed interactive “talking books” to bridge the literacy gap and teach the basics of birthing and raising children and providing families with good health.

These books are informative, culturally appropriate, easy to use, portable, and entertaining. Each page contains a descriptive story with audio messages that teach basic health and nutrition information. The book is divided into six major sections covering 19 health topics. Within the stories of each page are over 350 critically important health messages, including such topics as immunization, basic disease prevention, sanitation, prenatal care, and postpartum care, including breastfeeding and child nutrition.

In addition, the audio messages reinforce the association between the spoken and written word. So they help encourage reading and literacy while teaching basic health.

Over the past year, we have field-tested talking-book prototypes in Afghanistan, and they have been very well-received. Women, in particular, have felt empowered. I even showed the prototype to President Karzai and Minister Kazid who could not wait for all of us to leave their office so that they could play with it. These books will have an enormous impact on the people of Afghanistan.

Let’s take a minute to watch a brief video that demonstrates some of the features of the book.

[Video is played. This video along with the full video of the Secretary's speech will be available [on the HHS web site] soon.]

As you can see, this will be a tremendous tool. I think this technology holds a great deal of promise. The talking book model is an excellent example that could be expanded to other places where public health is held back by illiteracy and language barriers. For example, we could consider using such technology in sub-Saharan Africa, as part of our fight against HIV and AIDS. Or even here in America, we could use these books to spread the message of healthy living and disease prevention to areas along our border where people speak multiple languages.

And we can achieve the most success by building on this great example of public-private partnership. I want to encourage other private corporations, non-governmental organizations, think tanks, and academia to consider how they can contribute their resources toward such a noble cause. And I want to encourage all of you to help us build more partnerships similar to the one we celebrate today. Someone in this room may know an investor or a philanthropist who wants to distribute a book like this on AIDS prevention in Africa, or the Caribbean, or China or India, and to every area where literacy and basic medical knowledge are in short supply. We could also show people how to quit smoking. Let’s work together to use technology to help people around the world.

Before I go any further, I want to thank the many talented individuals who worked to make this project successful.

We could not have done any of this without the drive and dedication of Dr. Howard Zucker. And I have asked Howard to travel to Afghanistan after the books arrive. He will also provide a technical briefing at the close of our comments to answer any specific questions you may have regarding the project. I also want to thank:

  • Jerry Weiner, who gave me the idea and who is here with his wife Cathy and their daughter Kim, who consulted with Howard;
  • From the Office of Global Health:Dr. Bill Steiger, Dr. Melinda Moore, Dr. Amar Bhat, [and] Dr. Ed Sontag, my Assistant Secretary for Management;
  • My Office of Women’s Health led by Dr. Wanda Jones who gave me three excellent women’s health fellows: Gillian Kimura, Seema Khandelwal, and Jeannine Greenfield;
  • From the Office of General Counsel: Marc Weisman, Dan Barry, [and] Demetrios Kouzoukas;
  • The team at Voice of America, Spozhmai Maiwanda, Rauf Mehrpore, and Bill Royce who were very generous in helping with translating; [and]
  • Admiral Steve Abbot for his enthusiasm about the project.

Now let me talk a bit about how we will put [the books] into the hands of the Afghan people.

We have produced 20,000 books—10,000 in Dari, 10,000 in Pashto—and they are currently on their way to Kabul.

Initially, we will distribute 2,000 of the talking books to hospitals, clinics, and homes across the country. And we will carefully monitor their effectiveness, conducting an intensive study to see which distribution methods worked well. After learning from this initial phase, we will distribute the other 18,000 books.

These talking books are part of our larger strategy to bring help, hope, and healing to the people of Afghanistan. Several initiatives are aimed toward these goals. We partnered with the Department of Defense to rebuild the Rabia Balkhi Hospital. And today, maternal care is vastly improved. In the coming months, we will be developing a training program for obstetrics and gynecology so that doctors and midwives can learn the essentials of childbirth. We are also working with the Department of State on the Afghan Women’s Council, which I am sure Dr. Dobriansky will speak about.

The United States recognizes its moral responsibility to help the people of Afghanistan, and we are meeting this responsibility. What greater way is there to heal the wounds of a fractured nation than to give them knowledge to improve their health?  At the same time, what greater way is there for our nation to nurture a better image of America in this world than to provide others with an improved public health system?

There is no substitute for the physical, compassionate presence of American professionals, medicines, and money working to heal the bodies and touch the souls of those in need. By providing modern health care, we can improve the lives of the people we treat. But we can also improve the image of Americans in the world.  I call this medical diplomacy – where American goodwill is extended through medicines in a syringe, health knowledge in a talking book, or doctors of different cultures working side by side preventing disease. And I believe it can make a big difference in our foreign policy.

Friends, you don’t have to share a man’s faith to save his life. You don’t have to speak a woman’s language to cure her illness. You don’t need to grow up in a town to heal its people. But you do have to understand your place in the world and your responsibility to love your neighbors, whether they live down the street or across the sea. Through these talking books, I am proud to report that we are meeting this responsibility. We will help make Afghanistan a land of peace and opportunity for all people.

Thank you.

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