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An uphill fight against malaria in the DR Congo

On World Malaria Day yesterday, health and aid organisations were highlighting how malaria control measures such as bed nets and early treatment for sufferers can drastically reduce deaths from the disease.

But despite much progress over recent years, in many countries malaria remains the greatest threat to health, particularly among children. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo), for example, malaria is the leading cause of death among young children. It accounts for over a fifth of all deaths among the under-fives, with around 300,000 young children dying from it each year.

Aid organisations working in the country are particularly concerned this death toll might be even higher this year. Cases of malaria have been surging. One agency which treats malaria in the DR Congo is Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF); in 2009, MSF treated over 45,000 people. By last year, the total had climbed to 158,000 and already in 2012, over 85,000 people have been treated.

With its many lakes and areas of stagnant water, malaria is endemic in the DR Congo. But the increase in cases could also be due to further displacement of communities in certain regions as families flee their homes because of fighting. This means they often leave protective bed nets behind. With limited healthcare services operating over this vast country, even in stable regions, it’s frequently hard for sufferers to reach medical centres. And parents often leave it too late to bring sick children in for treatment.

An article in the Guardian highlights the huge need for medical assistance with malaria in the DR Congo. When MSF set up a treatment centre in Kinkondja in the Katanga Province, over 5,000 patients came to be screened in a four week period. 80% of these tested positive for malaria and 10% were already suffering from severe malaria. This is particularly dangerous in children, who develop anaemia. This is because the malaria parasite destroys red blood cells. In severe cases, children die unless they can receive a blood transfusion. When the MSF team arrived in Kinkondja, they found that around 50 dead children were being buried every three days. After broadcasting radio messages about bringing children in for early treatment and distributing bed nets, the situation in Kinkondja has improved.

MSF has deployed emergency medical teams in four provinces, but the charity is conscious that in other areas “healthcare is simply non-existent”. They know that more medical teams are urgently required to bring the number of deaths from malaria down across the country. Meanwhile, the global campaign to fight malaria is hoping to raise 3.2 billion dollars in funding for its ongoing fight against this killer. The goal of the United Nations is to have “near-zero” deaths from the disease by 2015. In the DR Congo, as in many other African countries, this goal unfortunately looks optimistic at best.

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