Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Comes Early to Nigerian Village

In rural Nigeria, mothers await monthly medical attention for their children, many of whom are ill with malaria.
Photo: Nyamah Dunbar/UMCOR

By Nyamah Dunbar

Recently, I spent seven days with the Nigeria Rural Health Program, visiting remote villages in the northeastern region of Nigeria. It was enough to humble me to the challenges and to what it means to deliver services “where the road ends.” The health professionals who provide outreach and clinical services under extremely difficult conditions left me inspired by their sacrifice and recharged to continue working towards the targets set by the Imagine No Malaria Campaign.

The Nigeria Rural Health Program operates under the auspices of The United Methodist Church in Nigeria. It is located in Zing, a small, remote village in a large country that is home to nearly 120 million people. As the most populated nation in Africa, with nearly a third of the continent’s people, most of Africa’s malaria burden and the majority of its deaths occur in this West African country.

Nigeria is enormous in size, and any government would find it challenging to deliver services to these most rural of places that lack even basic roads, drinking water, or electricity. People still live in huts built in the mountains and drink from creeks.

In Zing, which is located in Taraba State, the effects of the Sahara desert and global warming can be felt directly through sweltering days, dust storms, and cool nights. During visits with the health outreach team, I watched mothers forge through a scorching day simply to make the one opportunity they would have in a month to meet with a health-care professional regarding their children’s illnesses.

Most of the women crammed into the village hall were pregnant or had young children. The main illness plaguing their children was malaria, or “high fever,” as they commonly refer to the killer disease.

Dickens, the outreach team’s nurse, expertly vaccinated and evaluated each pregnant woman and counseled the young mothers on the importance of taking children to the health center at the onset of fevers.

But there were other issues of concern to the parents, such as the cost of medication. Many rely on subsistence farming which translates into a loss of productivity if the mother has to travel the day’s journey to the health center. She may also have to sleep over with the sick baby—which again translates into more money that the family already lacks.

One mother explained to me with tears of frustration how she had visited another health center during her pregnancy, only to learn that they were out of medicines and supplies to properly treat her.

The story does end with good news. The Rural Health Program was the first to submit an application to the Imagine No Malaria campaign, which officially launched its call for proposals last October. Now it can obtain funds to purchase critical anti-malaria drugs; expand the overcrowded hospital ward, which houses men, women, and children together; and expand community outreach efforts to not simply screen mothers and babies within the rural villages, but train traditional midwives to serve as a link between the community and the health center.

As the villagers and staff, including the outreach nurse Dickens, heard the news, their faces lit up so brightly that you would have thought Christmas had already arrived three weeks early. Sure, the road ahead will be filled with great challenges as the denomination works to eliminate deaths due to malaria, but if I could have bottled up the sunshine on each of those faces and handed it to you as a Christmas present, I would not have hesitated for an instant. Merry Christmas!! May the journey begin!

Nyamah Dunbar is grants manager for UMCOR’s Malaria Initiative.

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