Preventing malaria, one net at a time

I’m standing in an empty room, when she runs in. A young woman with tears streaming down her face, she is struggling to carry a boy in her arms. His arms and legs are limp. When she sets him down on the bench, we see that he is convulsing and foaming at the mouth. The woman pleads for us to help her son. His name is Belo, he is five years old and he had been sick with fever for two days.

We’re in a health centre at the St Joseph de Mokassa displacement site in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR). The centre is run by a man named Zean and six other health workers who have been displaced by the crisis in the country. There are thousands of people at the camp living in make-shift dwellings that offer few, if any, barriers against mosquitoes. Malaria is a constant, and deadly, threat to the 300,000 children living in camps in CAR, especially in the lead-up to the rainy season, where sites will become a quagmire of stagnant pools of water.

“I think he has malaria,” says Zean. As Belo thrashes involuntarily, two of the health workers gently hold him still, while one of the UNICEF doctors does a quick consultation and confirms the diagnosis—it is malaria. Zean rushes back to the office to get help. The rest of us wait anxiously. This is a scene that plays out again and again in displacement camps in Bangui, where malaria accounts for 40% of childhood illnesses.

A girl places a mosquito net over her bed. © UNICEF/NYHQ2012-2185/CHRISTINE NESBITT

A girl places a mosquito net over her bed.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-2185/CHRISTINE NESBITT

There are four different types of malaria in Central African Republic, including the most deadly type – cerebral malaria. All malaria is deadly for children under-five, when it is one of the top causes of child deaths. UNICEF and partners are distributing 150,000 insecticide-treated bed nets in major displacement sites in Bangui to protect children in the lead-up to the wet season next month.

Zean returns with a plastic bucket full of medical supplies. He injects Belo with Arthermesin, used to treat malaria in children. The little boy does not cry or squirm, and we all watch anxiously as Belo goes still. After a long pause, Belo opens his eyes and then with some difficulty he sits up on his own. Zean explains to Belo’s mother that he is still sick and that she needs to bring him back to the clinic for frequent follow up treatment. He is still very weak he says, but we are all relieved to see Belo wrap his arms around his mother’s neck as she gently lifts him into her arms.

This story has a happy end, but it often doesn’t. Malaria is responsible for more than a quarter of child deaths under five in Central African Republic. Many are treated in health centres like these. Basic rooms with nothing but wooden benches. Essential medicine and basic medical supplies are supplied by UNICEF.

The risk for malaria increases during the wet season. To keep children like Belo and his mother healthy, UNICEF is distributing 150,000 mosquito nets to protect vulnerable people against malaria.

Please note: This piece was originally published stating that 657,000 children live in camps in CAR.  The correct figure is 300,000 children.  We apologize for the error.

Linda Tom is the Chief of External Communication, UNICEF Central African Republic.

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