Madonna, Africa and Child Mortality

The problem is straightforward: more than nine million children die each year in Africa. That is the number of people in the entire state of New Jersey.

African kids die from infectious diseases such as HIV, TB, malaria, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, worms, parasites, and vaccine-preventable diseases, malnutrition and -- far too often -- during childbirth itself.

In an exclusive interview with HuffPo, Sonia Ehrlich Sachs, M.D., M.P.H. spoke to me about Africa, child mortality, and an intelligent, charismatic women who has learned much about both: Madonna.

2009-05-15-Malawi1.jpg Millennium Villages help care for children in Africa.

Dr. Sonia Sachs is a public health specialist and serves as the health coordinator for the Millennium Villages Project at the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

She is also married to another brilliant thought leader and global citizen, Prof. Jeffry Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, and Special Advisor to the U.N. Secretary General on the Millennium Development Goals.

Sonia is the pediatrician who was with Madonna in Malawi when the singer met one-year old David Banda. Sonia explained to me that the evening David left the orphanage to spend his first night with Madonna in a hotel in Lilongwe, he was very ill and could have died, as did his other siblings before him. She credits the entertainer for saving the child's life.

I had not realized that Madonna's project, Raising Malawi, was helping to support one of Jeff's Millennium Villages near Lilongwe. That was one of the reasons Sonia was with Madonna on the trip.

2009-05-15-Malawi2.jpg David Banda with his adoptive mother, Madonna.

"David would have died that evening or the following day if it were it not for Madonna. I can tell you with certainty that he would have died had he stayed in the orphanage," Sonia told me.

"The evening David was handed over to Madonna, he had a very high fever and was in acute respiratory distress -- meaning he had difficulty breathing."

"We took him to a private clinic, where a colleague and I examined him carefully, took a chest X-ray, diagnosed his respiratory infection, and treated him immediately with an inhaler, and intramuscular antibiotics. Lower respiratory infections like pneumonia are a common killer of so many children in Africa every year."

As founder of Orphans International Worldwide, I have experienced the death of one of our children in Haiti. The pain of losing a child is indescribable.

Last fall, Sonia presented to our Orphans International Worldwide Congress -- held at N.Y.U. Medical School -- on the grim story of African child mortality. She explained about preventable and treatable conditions such as extreme nutrient deficiencies, infectious diseases and unsafe childbirth.

The deaths of African children are all about food, water, and cooking stoves. Sonia explained that there is usually no public health system in place to address this tragic litany of otherwise very approachable issues.

Simple, non-clinical health interventions make a big difference in saving lives, Sonia believes. Improved nutrition through school meals, better cooking stoves to reduce open fire and indoor air pollution, clean water, mosquito bed nets, and de-worming are all essential, interventions needed but not affordable by people living in extreme poverty.

Through her work, Sonia has come to know Madonna a little bit. "I have found Madonna to be an impressively solid person dedicated to her children and to the welfare of thousands of neglected orphans in Malawi."

2009-05-15-Malawi3.jpg A Millennium Village doctor examining a child.

Sonia has personally witnessed Madonna's compassion and motherly instincts more than once.

In Malawi some people practice witchcraft. On occasion, a boy's entire genitalia are removed by villagers based on ancient superstition. One little boy Madonna met had been so mutilated he could not stop wetting himself. The physical and emotional suffering was unbearable.

Madonna held the boy and pledged to care for him, which she has done to this day by looking after his medical and educational needs. Thanks to Madonna, the boy continues to improve.

2009-05-15-Malawi4.jpg Children learning in a Millennium Village in Africa.

Madonna somehow speaks to the children of the world. From Africa to Asia and the Americas. My own teenage son Mathew -- adopted at the age of ten months from Indonesia -- has informed me that if I ever meet Madonna without him, he will disown me.