Lesotho's Crisis: 6 Doctors -- 800,000 Kids

Parents, U.S. docs pitch in to help overwhelmed pediatricians.

ByABC News
September 3, 2007, 3:49 PM

Sept. 3, 2007 — -- In a dimly-lit ward in the one public hospital in Lesotho's capital city, Maseru, the sickest infants have to take turns using the only oxygen tanks available. One mother sits nervously watching her tiny child's labored breathing. Another is slumped over, perched halfway on a chair with her torso bent over on her child's bed, her face buried in the sheets.

Mothers are everywhere here. They stay with their children 24 hours a day and administer medicine the way nurses and doctors do at hospitals in the United States. They have no choice.

In this small mountainous nation there are nearly two million people, including about 800,000 children. At the moment, there are six pediatricians to serve them all. You read that right. Six.

Only one pediatrician is on staff at the public hospital, Dr. Grace Phiri.

"We admit the children with their mothers to help us with the care of the child because the mothers do the feeding, do the changing of the babies, and also they assist in the administration of the medications," said Phiri.

Lesotho's government pays for medical students to leave the country for their medical training. But despite agreements with the government, many of those students simply never return to their home country. Job offers and higher salaries in nearby South Africa or Europe are too enticing.

So most of the pediatricians in the country now are Americans working at a clinic that was opened a year and a half ago by the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.

Health Minister Mphu Ramatlapeng acknowledged the country's health care system is in crisis.

"One doesn't have to look too far to see why it is stressed. It is mainly because of the HIV/AIDS pandemic," she told ABC News.

Of the 800,000 children in the nation, an estimated 18,000 are infected with the HIV virus. Most of the children at the public hospital are HIV-positive.

Retsilisitsoe Sekoai was one of them. When we visited recently, his tiny face peered out from under layers of blankets. At nine months old, he weighed just eight pounds. He was battling pneumonia and diarrhea.