Malaria Outbreak

In the wake of a disaster a lot of people talk about resilience, the resilience to survive and move on, to overcome. But this notion is not what I consider of when I think of the need for resilience; to me, it is the work and preparation carried out in advance so that when a tragedy hits the people are ready and can deflect the brunt of it.

Without divulging too much gen in to the quagmire that has been malaria prevention attempts in Cameroon, I would like to share my sentiments on the recent malaria outbreak in the north of the country. While this disaster is in no way comparable in scale to the challenges faced by the people of the Philippines in the wake of typhoon Haiyan, it is likewise not receiving nearly as much media attention and will likely go silently unnoticed to most of the world.

According to a recent report by Voice of America the death toll from this malaria outbreak has now surpassed 2,500, up from 800 which was reported by CNN on October 30. The most frustrating aspect of this tragedy is that, unlike a typhoon, malaria can be fairly easily prevented. Taking the simple precaution of sleeping under a mosquito net has been proven to greatly diminish instances of malaria. For this reason the Global Fund donated 9 million bed nets to Cameroon for distribution in 2010.

However, these bed nets can only save lives if they reach their intended beneficiaries. Reports coming out of the northern regions of Cameroon indicate that many of these nets never made it into the hands of the people who, especially now, desperately need them. While some hospitals have said they never even received the nets which they were charged to distribute, other local newspapers have accused certain hospital staff of selling the bed nets in neighboring countries such as Chad or Nigeria.

Still other reports have speculated that it is not only an absence of bed nets, but a lack of available treatment centers which is causing this particular outbreak to be so deadly. Malaria cases constitute the highest number of consults in Cameroonian hospitals and the death rate from the disease is currently at 28% in the northern regions. According to the Public Health Ministry, more than 12,000 people are seriously ill and have been admitted to hospitals but there are fewer than 10 treatment centers available to help those who’ve contracted the mosquito-borne illness.  Furthermore, if patients are able to reach a treatment center a lack of adequate facilities leaves thousands of women and children forced to sleep in the open or in overcrowded rooms without mosquito nets, increasing their chances to contract malaria.

The Cameroon Medical Council — a body governing the medical core in the West African nation — estimates a ratio of one doctor to every 40,000 patients. Less than 1,000 physicians currently work in the country, the council says, and toil under poor conditions and low wages. Observers have criticized President Paul Biya of ignoring the mounting malaria death toll as he was focused on lavish preparations to celebrate his 31 years in the presidency on November 6. Indeed, the government also footed the bill to transport thousands of voters to parliamentary and municipal elections earlier last month, but is not transporting dying patients to other areas with less-crowded hospitals and better treatment centers.

I come back to my sentiment that generating resilience needed to overcome the impact of malaria on communities will take more than simply dumping several million nets at a country’s port and hoping for the best. Generating preemptive resilience will require the development of infrastructure for delivery, quantitative logistical systems to track distribution and custom sensitization programs to teach on the proper use and benefits of such strategic interventions. This is the difficult, long-term work that makes communities more resilient, but it is often less appealing to the immediate-gratification craving donors.

The Global Fund will finance another mass distribution of long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets in Cameroon in 2015.

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