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At a glance: Congo

On track to stop malaria: Congolese railroad helps UNICEF deliver 300,000 bednets

© UNICEF Congo/2007
Congo’s Minister of Health, Social Policy and Family, Emelienne Raoul, sends off the train carrying 300,000 insecticide-treated bednets donated by Japan.

By Sarah Crowe

POINTE NOIRE, Republic of Congo, 13 August 2007 – It all started with an excess of malaria-carrying mosquitoes and a generous but bulky donation of insecticide-treated bednets to prevent the killer disease – plus a country with few paved roads and a population in need, living in inaccessible rebel-held areas.

Then came a bright idea: Get on the train, the only way to reach Congo’s capital, Brazzaville, 600 km overland from the port of Pointe Noire on the country’s Atlantic coast.

In the end, after weeks of preparation, eight train cars were loaded up with 300,000 bednets, the train was draped in flags and banners, and dignitaries gathered in front of Pointe Noire’s imposing Art Deco station. The Minister of Health, Social Policy and Family, Emelienne Raoul, donned a white engineer’s hat and whistled off the train, and the historic journey was under way.

Biggest killer of children

The special train’s two-day trip through Congo was a first. The journey had begun with containers of bednets being transferred onto the rail carriages at the port, and as it continued, the nets were reloaded onto trucks at stations along the way.

© UNICEF Congo/2007
Before the train leaves Pointe Noire, workers load it with bednets to be distributed to families throughout Congo.

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.

It was the first step in pre-positioning the bednets at health districts across Congo for the upcoming Child Health Days, a major integrated campaign that will provide vitamin A supplementation, routine vaccination and de-worming as well as malaria nets. The train against malaria also helped to create awareness about the scheduled October campaign, during which half a million bednets will be distributed – with the aim of reaching nearly every child under the age of five.

‘Serious about the struggle’

“It is really innovative,” said Ms. Raoul. “By launching this train, we are saying that we are serious about the struggle against malaria.

“Of course, the bednets are only one part of it,” the health minister continued, pointing to the need to promote the proper use of the nets along with 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,” said Ms. Raoul.

© UNICEF Congo/2007
This baby is sleeping under a bednet, but every year thousands of unprotected Congolese children under five die from malaria.

Strategic partnership

With armed police on board for protection through the rebel-held Pool region, the train passed signs of some 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 here.

“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,” said UNICEF’s Representative in Congo, Dr. Koen Vanormelingen.

“It was a tremendous challenge to get these nets out, and on a regular schedule it would have taken a year to transport them,” added Dr. Vanormelingen. “So we came up with the strategic partnership with the railroad company and the government.”

Protecting every child

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 percent of pregnant women and children under five sleep beneath insecticide-treated bednets in 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 birthweight among newborns.

At the Dolisie and Nkayi train stations, some bednets were handed out directly to pregnant women and mothers with small children. They were especially thrilled because 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.

Travelling across swift rivers and rapids, lush tropical forests and dry open savannah to busy Brazzaville, the train against malaria put Congo on track to protecting every child from preventable diseases and coming closer to reaching its Millennium Development Goals.




13 August 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe reports on a strategic partnership with the Congolese national railroad to deliver malaria nets.
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