Announced at the end of last month by the foreign secretary as he visited the country, the five-year health package will help provide support for rape victims. It will also include a package of measures to improve the delivery of other vital health services, such as measles vaccinations for 64,000 children each year.
With the new programme, the UK government is counting on the prospects of better stability in the east of the DR Congo. In February, leaders and representatives from 11 African nations in the region signed a peace plan, alongside the United Nations, the African Union and other regional organisations. The government of the DR Congo has also promised to reform its army and police, to de-centralise power and to re-engage in the process of national reconciliation. The deal was overseen by Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland.
The investment in healthcare by the UK government is badly needed, since many of the country’s medical facilities were destroyed during the long years of civil war. Most operational hospitals and medical centres are run by international development agencies or charitable organisations, with either private doctors or volunteers as staff. However, it’s an enormous task to cover every area of this vast country, which is why many children go unimmunised or receive medical treatment too late.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), for every 1,000 live births in the DR Congo, 170 children are likely to die before their fifth birthday. Illnesses linked to unsafe water and lack of sanitation are particularly prevalent, with around one in ten of deaths among the under fives caused by diarrhoea. Cholera is another danger. An epidemic which started in the middle of 2011 has struck tens of thousands and killed hundreds. But malaria remains the biggest threat, responsible for the deaths of 18% of under-fives (WHO 2010 data). The UK programme will help distribute bed-nets to pregnant women and young children to protect them from malaria.
The DR Congo also has a high rate of maternal deaths; each year, around 19,000 women die due to complications from child birth. The new funding will help supply contraception, provide emergency obstetric care and ensure trained health workers are present at births.