Frontline Stories

Malaria: More Than Just a Health Issue

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On a Wednesday in late 2017, Francine, 29, a mother of 3 in Burundi, held a young baby in her hands, while her son, 7-year-old Justin walked by her side. They had started their journey early in the morning to a nearby health facility so that they could be served among the first.

It took an hour to walk to the health facility. This time, Francine did not go there to seek medical attention for her young baby, but because Justin had been having a high fever for 3 days.

For Justin, this was not his first time last year to suffer from an illness. In January 2017, his mother took him to the same health facility and he was diagnosed with malaria. Francine had to pay 1,500 BIF (around HK$7) for his medication.

“After taking tablets for 3 days, he got well,” Francine said.

Francine’s husband was the only in the family who did not get sick since the year started. “When I was pregnant, I had malaria three times. Fortunately, I was treated free of charge,” she said.

In Burundi, pregnant women and children under the age of 5 enjoy free medical care from the government.

On that day, when Francine entered the health facility, the reception room was overcrowded, mainly with mothers and young children.

Even though he was feeling bad, Justin had to wait for his turn. As nurses received one patient after another, the young boy had to wait outside to catch some fresh air.

“I feel bad, sometimes I vomit, have a headache and a high fever,” Justin said. The young boy added that the symptoms were the same when malaria attacked him last time.

After a while, Justin’s blood was tested and he was diagnosed with malaria. He was charged 2,500 BIF (around HK$11) as he was not in the category of children who benefit from free medication.

“This is too much for me,” Francine said. “Malaria is making us poor. I have to sell what I have in my store to pay medical bills. Moreover, the time I spend on going to the healthy facility is when I would otherwise spend on cultivating.” Francine added.

Sometimes, Francine feared for the life of her children. When asked why she felt so, the mother of three said, “In my neighbourhood there are parents who have already lost children and relatives due to malaria. Until today, I don’t know why my children and I keep suffering from malaria even though we use mosquito nets.”

Causes of Malaria

Cases of malaria in Francine’s community and its surroundings have shown no signs of dropping, especially during the rainy season. “We receive around 40 cases a day during this rainy season. Many of the patients are treated and they go home, and others are admitted for some days. Today, we have already diagnosed 13 cases among children, and they represent a big proportion if we compare the numbers with those of adults,” Odette, a nurse at the health facility, said.

In November 2017 alone, the health facility diagnosed around 900 sick people with malaria, of which more than 70% were children aged 13 and under.

Climate change is said to be a reason for the spread of malaria, as cases are recorded in new regions. Food insecurity and poor nutrition weaken people’s immune systems; while poverty prevents patients from making use of available preventive mechanisms, are also said to have worsened the situation.

Another reason, as health specialists say, is population density. Burundi is very densely populated and this speeds up the spread of malaria.

World Vision Burundi is intervening in some areas and has provided 58,000 mosquito nets to the most vulnerable families. Long-lasting insecticide has also been sprayed in 184,000 households to prevent new infections, benefitting one million people in 3 provinces.

As Francine went home, she hoped that her son would recover soon. “The last time when he had malaria, it took him only 3 days to get well after taking the tablets,” she said in a hopeful tone.

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