Fighting malaria in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Encouraged by results of mass distributions of mosquito nets in 2009, a new campaign is about to be launched.

Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, 7 April 2011 – Little Moke is 4 years old and for the past 5 days he’s had fever and no appetite. “I am really worried; he doesn’t stop complaining about pain. Usually he plays all day long, but now he is totally listless,” explains Nsadisa, his 25 year old mother. As she speaks, Nsadisa’s eyes are dark with fear; two of her children died last year, one from diarrhea and one, Moke’s younger brother, from malaria.

For the young woman there is no doubt that her son has malaria, a quick blood test at Kinshasa’s Barumbu Health Centre confirms it. And she’s not alone, at the center, other children display similar symptoms.   

A child born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is estimated to have an average of eight episodes of malaria every year. This is the equivalent of 60 to 100 million episodes per year – each of them potentially deadly. Approximately 180,000 Congolese children under five do not recover from the infectious disease and die.

Others are left orphans because the illness kills their parents.

In a country where access to basic health care is a luxury, prevention becomes vital to save lives.  “Together with measles and cholera – deadly epidemics that have broken out in the past months – the fight against malaria remains on top of UNICEF’s agenda,” says Pierrette Vu Thi, UNICEF Representative in the DR Congo.

Not an easy endeavor in a country characterized by its vastness and lack of infrastructure. To reach households in the 11 provinces all available means are deployed: the nets are transported by boat and plane, truck and train, canoe and foot. “To make a bednet campaign a success, logistic challenges must be overcome. Yet equally important is to ensure that families know how to use these nets properly. It is not easy, but it can be done” says Vu Thi. “When we kicked-off the first round of distributions in two provinces in 2009, people warned us that the nets would be used as wedding scarves and fishing nets. But today we see the fruits of systematic awareness-raising at the community level.”

“Parents have come to understand that a net is more valuable over a bed than used as a fishing tool or head decoration,” smiles Dr. Alphonse Toko, UNICEF specialist for malaria in DR Congo.

In the meantime, UNICEF is getting ready for the next mass distribution of insecticide treated mosquito nets scheduled to begin in early June 2011 and expected to reach 3.630.000 households living in provinces that were not reached in 2009, namely Bandundu, North and South Kivu and Katanga.

“Our target is to provide, until 2012, every family with three treated bed nets,” says Vu Thi.  Back at the Barumby Health Center’s waiting room, Nsadisa watches her son attentively: “It is not easy to take my family to the health center; the money used for medication is not there to buy food. But the past has taught me that only a doctor can save a child when Malaria has grabbed it.”  Little Moke will now be put on anti-malaria treatment and multi-vitamins. After a week or so, he should be better and, thanks to the mosquito net she received today, Nsadisa’s children will now be better protected from further malaria episodes.

No child should die from malaria, but still many do.

There are interventions to control malaria that are simple and effective….We know that long-lasting insecticide nets distributed eqitably throughout these African countries can protect sleeping children from deadly mosquito bites.  We know that the availability of rapid diagnostic testing in rural Africa can quickly detect the presence of malaria parasistes in human blood.  And, when the test result is positive, we know that a three day course of highly effective drugs known as ACTs can save lives.

UNICEF is asking donors to wake up to the challenge to make evey relevant and necessary effort to eradicate malaria through prevention and cure.  Now through 2012,  the UNICEF Malaria Initiative will need to raise over $23.5 million dollars to purchase nets, diagnositc testing, and medications to fight malaria, one of the world’s deadliest killers.

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Malaria: Send a net and save a live