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UN’s 'malaria express' spreads 300,000 insecticide-treated nets in Republic of Congo

UN’s 'malaria express' spreads 300,000 insecticide-treated nets in Republic of Congo

Child sleeping under bednet
With armed police on board for protection through a rebel-held region, a United Nations-sponsored train draped in flags and banners has covered 600 kilometres through the Republic of Congo, dropping off 300,000 insecticide-treated bed nets to fight one of the tropics’ deadliest diseases – malaria – in some of the country’s remotest corners.

“It’s a great irony that the railroad that took 20,000 lives to build in the 1920s is now being used to save lives,” UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) country representative Koen Vanormelingen said of the mercy mission from the Atlantic port of Pointe Noire to Brazzaville, the capital, the first step in pre-positioning the bed nets at health districts across Congo for the upcoming Child Health Days.

“It was a tremendous challenge to get these nets out, and on a regular schedule it would have taken a year to transport them. So we came up with the strategic partnership with the railroad company and the Government,” he added of the campaign to combat a disease that kills a child every 30 seconds somewhere in the world, mostly in Africa.

After weeks of preparation, eight train cars were loaded up with the 300,000 bed nets last week and dignitaries gathered in front of Pointe Noire’s imposing Art Deco station. Minister of Health, Social Policy and Family Emelienne Raou donned a white engineer’s hat and whistled off the train, and the historic journey was under way.

The special train’s two-day trip through the Congo was a first, and as it pushed on across swift rivers and rapids, lush tropical forests and dry open savannah towards the capital, the nets were reloaded onto trucks at stations along the way.

Donations from the Government of Japan and the US Fund for UNICEF, and support from the Congolese Government and the national railroad company, all helped UNICEF get the campaign rolling out against the biggest killer of this country’s children.

The train against malaria also helped to create awareness about the scheduled October campaign, during which half a million bed nets will be distributed with the aim of reaching nearly every child under the age of five. The major integrated campaign will also provide vitamin A supplementation, routine vaccination and de-worming.

Armed police were on hand for protection through the Pool region and the train passed signs of earlier derailments along the track – shards of metal discarded around sharp corners. But there was little visible evidence of the toll the railroad took during its construction in the French colonial heydays.

The reason for such big plans is plain to see at any hospital or clinic, where child malaria cases abound. According to the UNICEF country office, only about 5 per cent of pregnant women and children under five sleep beneath insecticide-treated bed nets in the Republic of Congo. Malaria is the major cause of sickness and death in children; it is also the leading cause of dangerous anaemia in pregnant women, which results in low birth weight among newborns.

“It is really innovative,” Ms. Raoul said of the initiative. “By launching this train, we are saying that we are serious about the struggle against malaria. Of course, the bed nets are only one part of it,” she added, stressing the need to promote insecticide spraying around homes, better sanitation and prompt treatment for children who contract malaria. “Malaria is a real struggle for us, so the main thing is try and kill the larvae before they infect people.”

At the Dolisie and Nkayi train stations, some bed nets were handed out directly to pregnant women and mothers with small children. They were especially pleased that the nets were the kind that do not have to be re-treated with insecticide for five years.

“The mosquito nets we get at the market are not impregnated like these, so our children still get malaria. With these ones now we are secure and protected,” said Arlette Boungou, 28, with her 18-month-old daughter Marie-Loure in her arms.

The train against malaria has put Congo on track to protecting every child from preventable diseases and coming closer to reaching its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted by the leaders of 191 countries at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000 and seeking to sharply slash hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women, all by 2015.