6:00 P.M. EST December 6, 2010 | BO, Sierra Leone (UMNS)
Martha Mbriwa, 25, lies ill with cerebral malaria at The United Methodist Church's Mercy Hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone. Just outside the hospital room, the Imagine No Malaria campaign was distributing free mosquito nets. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.
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Your joints ache. You have a fever, yet your body feels cold. You are sick to your stomach, and experience vomiting and diarrhea. You are so weak you cannot stand, let alone walk. The room spins, making you more nauseous. As lethargic as you may be, you know you are one of the lucky ones.
No one knows this better than Martha Mbriwa, 25, of Bo.
The day started like any other, except she awoke with a terrible headache. The family needed food, however, so she went to the market, where she became disoriented and collapsed. When she awoke, her speech was unintelligible; shoppers in the crowded marketplace thought Mbriwa was insane, so they carried her to a community-based health center. Because of the severity of her illness, known as cerebral malaria, Mbriwa was transferred to Mercy Hospital in Bo.
Cerebral malaria is the most life-threatening form of the disease. Parasite-filled blood blocks small blood vessels that supply the brain with oxygen and other nutrients. This blockage results in swelling of the brain or permanent damage. If left untreated, death will occur in one to three days.
While Mbriwa was in the hospital, her family received a bed net as part of a major health care campaign and net distribution sponsored by The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign , The United Nations Foundation, the Ministry of Health in Sierra Leone and other international agencies.
John Amara tries to cool his son’s fever with a makeshift fan at The United Methodist Church's Kissy Hospital outside Freetown.
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The United Methodist Church has joined with the government of this West African country and other international organizations to provide more than 3 million insecticide-treated bed nets to the people of Sierra Leone, where malaria is a leading cause of death.
Treated with life-saving medication and intravenous fluids, Mbriwa is expected to make a full recovery.
Children are most vulnerable
On a humid day in Sierra Leone, it is easily 100 degrees in the shade. The air is stifling hot. People are covered in sweat. Air-conditioning is not available, and clean drinking water is scarce.
Inside a dimly lit room at The United Methodist Church’s Kissy Hospital, John Arara desperately waves a piece of paper in front of his 16-month-old son, Henry Peter. As is the case with many children in sub-Saharan Africa, the baby is malnourished and anemic, which makes treatment even more difficult.
Just a few days earlier, Henry was a typically curious baby. When he became listless, fevered and unable to eat or drink, his parents knew the baby was in trouble. His father carried him through the city, in the heat of the day, to receive treatment. The baby was quickly admitted.
Dr. Merilyn Palmer is in charge of his care. “His condition is not good,” she said. “We are hoping that medication will be enough and a blood transfusion will not be necessary. Now, we watch and we wait.”
Palmer said a number of contributing factors make malaria difficult to treat. Since mild malaria symptoms are common, many parents try to treat the children at home. When the child’s symptoms become more pronounced, it may be too late to benefit from medical intervention. Africa loses a child under age 5 every 45 seconds to malaria.
Most Sierra Leoneans cannot afford transportation so they must walk to a community-based health clinic or hospital.
In the bed across from Henry is a 5-year-old boy who was treated for malaria just three weeks earlier. His mother sits in a chair beside his bed, watching and waiting.
“He is a complicated case,” Palmer said. “He recovered the first time, but (the disease) has returned. But his immune system is compromised. He just isn’t responding as we had hoped.”
Entire family suffers
Musukula Lukulay, 30, has never experienced malaria first hand, but she is familiar with watching and waiting. Her husband and children have had been stricken several times.
Musukula Lukulay is worried about her son Tommy Lukulay, 3, who has malaria. They are at the Koribondo Village Health Center near Bo.
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In Sierra Leone, everyone has responsibilities just to maintain daily living. Lukulay’s husband is a motorbike driver. Although not a high-paying job, the family is grateful for the income he provides. But when Lukulay’s husband recently developed malaria, he was unable to work, which meant no money. No money, no food.
When Lukulay’s 3-year-old-son Tommy also contracted malaria, she needed to care for him, so was she unable to tend to the family’s farm or take vegetables to the market to sell. No sales. No income. No food.
Caring for her family is a daily challenge, since clean water and modern conveniences do not exist. She washes their clothes and sheets by hand. When the family is ill, so ill that members cannot care for their own bodily functions, the challenges are even greater and more time-consuming.
The whole household stops.
“I tend to the family, but I am unable to do my other work. It makes me sad,” Lukulay said. “I feel helpless when my husband or children are ill. It’s as if I have malaria, too.”
The Imagine No Malaria campaign aims to eliminate malaria deaths in Africa by 2015. Donations to the campaign can be made here.
* Panovec is the executive director of new media at United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470, or firstname.lastname@example.org.