Here in the United States, malaria is often merely thought of as an exotic, foreign disease that was eradicated from our nation in 1951.
But when asked to describe malaria in one word, a nurse at Karawa General Hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had this to say:
The hospital administrator said that 80 percent of the local population carries the disease. My assignment last week was to document the needs of children in the region, because World Vision is considering working in the Karawa area.
Malaria dominated almost every situation I covered. Here is a glimpse of what it looks and feels like.
For Nkujuwumba, a 12-year-old orphan, the trip to the clinic came too late. She lay in the arms of her aunt outside Mapamboli Clinic, while her father, Jean Nkusu, desperately tried to find the right kind of blood for a transfusion -- and the money to pay for it. By the time they made the long journey to get treatment, Nkujuwumba had already suffered brain damage. The aunt says, "We are down.”
Nicole wrapped her son, Yangana, 3, in a wet cloth to bring down his 104-degree fever, and held him patiently as he cried in pain while receiving a blood transfusion at Karawa General Hospital. "Malaria is what makes people weak," she said. "It gives belly pains. The baby can't eat. I don't have words to say (that can describe the disease)."
The prognosis for 2-year-old Mokondae is better, as he receives a blood transfusion. But his mother and grandmother worry because he has no appetite and still has a very high fever.
Six-year-old Yolondo lies on the floor at Botulugu Health Clinic, in too much pain to sit on the bench with the others who are waiting to see the nurse. She has had high fever, chills, and vomiting for a month. Her mother has brought only one 500 franc note, but the consultation today will cost 1,500 francs, and full treatment, 5,000 francs. Staff members tell me the average family in this community earns only 15,000 francs a year (just over U.S. $15), surviving mostly on agricultural produce and barter. Therefore, treatment for one child can cost four months of their cash earnings.
Gideon, 13, fainted at school, vomiting during a key French exam. His uncle ran for two miles, carrying Gideon on his back to get him to the Mapamboli Health Clinic. There, he was diagnosed with grave malaria. As he received an IV drip of malaria medicine, Gideon, sometimes babbling incoherently from his high fever, described what it is like to be in the throes of a malaria attack. “I have a headache, front and back. My head is beating like a tom-tom (drum). My heart is hot. I (feel) like my body is evaporating.”
Payment is a problem for the clinics, but so are adequate medical supplies. Ninety percent of the patients come in for malaria treatment, but on the day I visited, the clinic had no malaria medicines among their meager supplies. They see 30-35 patients per day, and operate seven days a week.
Six-year-old Umba had malaria symptoms for three days before his father carried him four miles on his shoulders to Karawa General Hospital. His blood level was 28 percent of normal, and he was anemic and dehydrated. He needs a blood transfusion, but the family has no money, so the staff gave Umba a saline drip and glucose injections.
Umba's father, Dembele, joined by other relatives, tenderly watched over the boy as he labored to breathe and appeared to have seizures. He didn't have the luxury to consider his son's future. "My mind now is just to see him healthy," he said.
When I asked Dembele whether any of his other children have had malaria, the medical staff nearby burst into laughter. "This area is a malaria zone, so all children get malaria," they said. "Malaria is a disease that kills a child in an hour if we don't intervene." At the Botulugu Clinic, staff told me, "Many, many are dying of malaria."
Photos by Jon Warren.
Visit www.endmalaria.org to learn more about how you can help stop this deadly but preventable and treatable disease.