MBANZA-NGUNGU, Congo, March 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
- A s a nurse in rural Democratic Republic of Congo where health
facilities are scarce and patients often arrive too late for
treatment, Jeanne Empunda is used to dealing with child deaths.
But since becoming head nurse at Athenee clinic when it
opened in 2013 in the western province of Kongo Central, Empunda
has not recorded a single child death.
It is a rare success in a country which has one of the
highest infant mortality rates in the world, with 104 deaths per
1,000 live births, according to the Congolese Demographic Health
Survey. Five years ago it was 146 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Before the clinic was set up in a small red building with a
corrugated zinc roof, pregnant women and mothers with young
children had to travel more than 20 kilometres (12 miles) to be
treated at a crumbling, colonial-era hospital in Mbanza-Ngungu,
one of the province's biggest cities.
Some patients would make the journey on foot.
But now women living within Empunda's health zone travel
three kms (1.9 miles) at most to reach health services that have
been bolstered by a host of newly-trained community health
workers - many of them women.
"Things have changed a lot here – people are taking charge,"
Empunda told Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Soon, we want to be
able to say that no one is getting sick or dying anymore and
that this is because of us, the community."
Cradling her feverish 10-month-old baby in the clinic's
waiting room, Sele Nlandu-Michelin said she used to be afraid of
being attacked or raped travelling to Mbanza-Ngungu hospital.
But the new clinic is just a 10-minute walk from her home.
"It helps me and my baby a lot," she said.
A NATIONWIDE APPROACH
The clinic is part of a joint initiative between the
Congolese government and the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, to
tackle a lack of medical facilities and well-trained health
professionals as well as the high cost of healthcare.
The project aims to provide all pregnant women and mothers
of children under the age of five with free health kits
containing mosquito nets and basic medication to treat children
for diarrhoea, fever and malnutrition.
UNICEF DRC helps train community health workers to teach
mothers how and when to use the kits, which also include
vouchers that can be used to get treatment at the nearest clinic
for a nominal fee of around $1, less than a quarter of the usual
Having successfully piloted the scheme in Mbanza-Ngungu,
UNICEF DRC has now started to implement it nationwide with the
aim of reaching almost two million children by the end of 2017.
One of the biggest reasons behind the project's success has
been the relative stability in Mbanza-Ngungu region, World
Health Organization Coordinator for DRC, Ernest Dabire, said.
For decades, the vast central African country has been a
tinderbox of conflicts over land, ethnicity and minerals.
"In the east of the country for example, where there is
still consistent conflict, even if the government and its
external partners have the good will, it's very difficult to
implement a well-structured programme in practice," Dabire told
the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Back in Mbanza-Ngungu, Phillipe Pululu, chief medical
officer for the region, voiced concerns about political
instability in the capital Kinshasa, and the impact this might
have on future government funding for healthcare.
Since President Joseph Kabila decided not to step down after
his mandate expired in December, security across DRC has
worsened with a wave of killings and lawlessness.
Besides overseeing Athenee clinic's medical services,
Empunda has been at the forefront of a series of innovations
aimed at making the area's healthcare more self-sufficient.
With her colleague Thérèse Matondo, who coordinates the team
of community health workers, Empunda has planted a vegetable
garden in front of the clinic and employs other women to sell
the produce at market to help supplement the clinic's income.
Looking to the future, Matondo plans to plant rows of fruit
trees next to the vegetable garden. She also hopes to save
enough money to buy a few motorbikes so that her health workers
can make their home visits more easily.
About 12 kms southwest of Athenee, another clinic has made
similar strides in tackling child mortality. Head nurse Elisee
Nsumbu said there have been no child deaths recorded at Noki
clinic since she took over a year ago.
"A few years ago, there were a lot of children dying here.
But now, the situation has really improved," she said.
Local resident Nancy Nzakimuena agreed that "things have
changed a great deal" due to the family kits and the increase in
community health workers.
Sitting in her living room with one of her three children
asleep on the sofa next to her, Nzakimuena said women in the
community were helping each other by sharing health information
and medication from the kits when necessary.
"We are also teaching our children now too because it's
important that this carries on," she added.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen; Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, resilience and
climate change. Visit www.trust.org)