DRC: Fighting a Deadly Malaria Outbreak

An unusually severe outbreak of malaria has hit the health area of Pawa and neighbouring Boma Mangbetu. On Monday, May 9, 141 children were admitted overnight to the Pawa General Referral Hospital in Haut-Uele Province in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The huge influx of admissions put the hospital well over capacity, with two or three children to each of the pediatric ward’s 22 beds, with others on mats on the floor between the beds and in the corridors.

“We are so tired of watching children die!” exclaimed the head of the Gatua communities during a meeting with a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) nurse. “We have been burying children nonstop since March. The health care center has no more malaria medicine, and mothers are taking their children home to die. The only thing they can do is to cool them down with water to try and bring the fever down.”

At the beginning of May, MSF launched emergency relief activities in the Pawa and Boma Mangbetu health zones in response to an appeal from the overwhelmed health authorities. The first step was to distribute close to 10,000 artemisinin-based treatments for malaria and a larger number of rapid diagnostic tests to 32 health care centres in order to ensure that the disease is treated quickly, effectively, and free of charge on a local level.

“We have encountered a similar situation only once: in 2012, during an intervention in the areas of Ganga-Dingila, Pawa, Poko, and Boma-Mangbetu we treated over 60,000 children suffering from malaria,” explained Florent Uzzeni, MSF deputy emergency program manager. “Today our primary objective is to treat children suffering from simple malaria as quickly as possible, so that they do not go on to develop severe malaria.”

If the disease is treated in time with the right medication, the risk of complications can be significantly reduced. However, the current lack of available medication and its excessive cost have meant that cases of severe malaria are multiplying, leading to many children dying at home without access to health care. Therefore, MSF will also provide support for the Pawa and Boma Mangbetu general referral hospitals in treating these complicated cases, which often require intensive care, blood transfusions, and oxygen therapy. MSF medical staff will augment the Ministry of Health's medical team. The organization will also provide required equipment and medication as well as training to improve the quality of care.

“We will provide relief in the areas with the highest number of malaria cases, but we know that other health areas in the Haut-Uele, Bas-Uele, and Ituri provinces have also been affected,” continued Florent Uzzeni. “Effective treatments do exist, and if all the stakeholders within the country involved in the fight against malaria move quickly, we will be able to stop too many children dying as a result of this outbreak.”