|© UNICEF video|
|Mothers in Guinea-Bissau line up with their children at a distribution point for free, insecticide-treated mosquito nets.|
By Thomas Nybo
BISSAU, Guinea-Bissau, 5 March 2008 – Awa Gras knows firsthand how deadly malaria can be for children growing up in Guinea-Bissau. She has given birth to eight children, and malaria has killed four of them. The last to die was her four-year-old son, who returned from a soccer match feeling ill.
"He had a fever and was complaining of pains in his body," Ms. Gras recalled. "Like his siblings who died of malaria, he was not even five years old. By the time we got him to the hospital and doctors diagnosed it as malaria, it was too late. Two days later, he was dead."
Every 30 seconds, a child dies of malaria somewhere in the world. Including adults, about 1 million people die of malaria each year, most of them in Africa. In 2006, as part of its push to reduce infant mortality around the world, UNICEF procured over 24 million insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria.
In order to prevent another death among her surviving children, Ms. Gras took her two-year-old daughter, Mariama, to a bed net distribution point during a UNICEF-supported national campaign to reverse malaria in Guinea-Bissau. As part of the campaign, children under the age of five were receving the long-lasting bed nets for free.
Mosquito nets were also distributed to pregnant women during antenatal care to protect them from malaria and to give their newborns a better chance to survive.
A disease of poverty
Ms. Gras and her children live in a crowded house with no electricity or running water. A large part of family’s day is taken up by walking to the local tap for water. All of her children have had malaria.
"In this country, there are a lot of mosquitos and other small insects," said Ms. Gras. "It's so bad right now that it's almost impossible to sleep without the mosquito nets. The nets will also help prevent malaria."
Malaria is often considered a disease of poverty, because it mainly strikes poor families who have few barriers against mosquitos. Nearly everyone in Ms. Gras's neighbourhood has lost a family member to malaria or knows someone who has died from the disease.
An urgent plea
UNICEF Deputy Representative in Guinea-Bissau Sylvana Nzirorera offered an urgent plea regarding the fate of children in the country.
"We have to keep the children of Guinea-Bissau alive," she asserted. "We have 30 children dying every day. It's unacceptable. They die of diarrhoea, they die of malnutrition, of respiratory infection, of malaria. We cannot accept that. We need money, we need commitment from the government. But I must say, this government really doesn't have budget."
UNICEF's Chief of Child Survival in Guinea-Bissau, Dr. Mehoundo Faton, echoed this concern.
"Malaria in this country is the first killer of children under five," said Dr. Mehoundo. "So the use of mosquito net is the most cost-effective intervention to prevent malaria, to reduce child mortality."
As for Awa Gras, she returned from the distribution point with a new insecticide-treated net to be used by her young daughter. Ms. Gras will sleep a little easier, knowing that her daughter is protected against one of the biggest killers of children in Africa.