Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs

HEALTH-DR CONGO: Malaria Remains Biggest Killer

Miriam Mannak

LUBUMBASHI (Democratic Republic of Congo), Oct 27 2008 (IPS) - With almost 200,000 people dying of malaria each year in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the disease remains the country's biggest killer.

The DRC is one of the worst affected countries in the world when it comes to malaria, a disease that is transmitted through the bite of infected female mosquitoes.

According to a 2005 survey financed by World Bank, 97 percent of the DRC's population of 60 million lives in areas permanently affected by malaria. The remaining three percent are vulnerable to malaria epidemics.

The report also states that 180,000 Congolese die of malaria each year, and it is estimated that one in five Congolese children dies before age five as a result of malaria. The disease kills 10 percent of infants before their first birthday.

The Katanga province in the south of the country, with Lubumbashi as its provincial capital, forms no exception. "In the Lubumbashi area, malaria is the cause of about 60 percent of all deaths among children under the age of twelve," doctor Antoine Boa told IPS.

Boa is the in-house physician of the Bakanja Centre. Situated on the outskirts of Lubumbashi, the centre was established 14 years ago by a Belgian Salesian NGO – Oeuvres Maman Marguerite – which offers children a place to sleep, food, schooling, and free medical care while attempts are made to reunite them with their families.

When IPS visited the Bakanja Centre, the shelter's small hospital ward was almost empty. Two of the twenty-odd beds were occupied, with both patients fast asleep underneath their mosquito nets.

"At the moment, the situation is not too bad," Boa continued. "However, with the wet season being on its way, we will most probably see an increase of the number of malaria infections as rainfall creates pools of stagnant water, in which female mosquitoes lay their eggs."

To combat the disease, the government of the DRC announced earlier this year that it will launch a mosquito net campaign. About two million long-lasting insecticide impregnated nets will be distributed in and around the capital of Kinshasa and another 1.5 million in rural areas.

Although these attempts have been applauded by international organisations such as the World Bank, local specialists are rather skeptical.

"Mosquitoes are very clever and stubborn creatures. You can protect yourself in whatever way possible, they know how to find you," said Boa.

"There is nothing wrong with protecting people against mosquitoes, but one should also have a look at how to curb the mosquito population growth, for instance by focusing on how to prevent the insects from reproducing," added doctor Juvet Katagondwa.

When driving through Lubumbashi, one cannot but notice how the ditches and storm water drains along side the roads are clogged up with plastic bags and other refuse.

"The smelly water that is trapped is a massive problem in many urban areas in the DRC," says Katagondwa, who used to work in the city of Bukavu.

"The rubbish prevents water from flowing away, which turns ditches and drains into mosquito nurseries."

Katagondwa added that malaria treatment should be improved and made more affordable for the public, "Most people can only afford quinine, which costs around five dollars for a seven-day course. Other available drugs, which are more effective, are often too expensive for the average Congolese."

Despite being one of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources – including gold, uranium, cobalt, and diamonds – the DRC remains one of the world's poorest countries. According to figures released by the Directorate General for Development of the European Commission, the country's annual gross domestic product per capita in 2006 was just $139.

Some companies have taken on the responsibility for protecting their employees and their next of kin from diseases like malaria.

For the past eighteen years, Katagondwa has worked for Bralima, a Congolese brewing company that is owned by the Dutch beer producer Heineken. The company's approximately 2,200 employees and their families receive free medical care, which includes testing and treatment for malaria.

This initiative stimulates people to go to see the doctor in case they feel sick, says Katagondwa: "Poverty keeps people from seeing a doctor, and as result, they are not treated on time. The consequences may be fatal."

Malaria is usually tested by examining a drop of blood taken from a finger under the microscope. It takes between one and two hours to determine whether the patient is infected or not.

In Lubumbashi, this test costs the equivalent of a dollar on average, Katagondwa told IPS. "This does not seem much, but in order to be tested you usually require a doctor's consultation. This costs between $5 and $10. Most people cannot afford this."

The lack of financial means also often results in self-medication without being tested. "Because the disease is so widespread, people often assume it is malaria which makes them ill. Unfortunately, many of the symptoms of malaria – such as fever, headaches, nausea and chills – are also symptoms of other dangerous diseases, such as typhoid fever, which is also quite common here. Leaving this illness untreated can be fatal."

Katagondwa said that it is of great importance that getting tested for malaria should be made easier. "Not only to make sure malaria patients are treated timely, but to save the lives of those who think they have malaria and seek treatment for it, while they actually suffer from another potentially fatal illness."

According to Katagondwa there is hope, but only if malaria is targeted from all directions: "Protect the people, make sure they get tested on time and get the right treatment while putting effort in curbing the mosquito population. Unclogging water passages and covering open sewage systems is definitely not the cure, but it will certainly help, and should therefore be a priority."

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