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Congo, Democratic Republic of the

A nurse and a family kit help save children’s lives

UNICEF Community health worker Charlotte fights child mortality in DRC.


By Yves Willemot

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a UNICEF-supported programme providing families with medicine and advice at home is a positive step towards reducing child mortality.

MBANZA NGUNGU, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 29 May 2015 – Charlotte Disukini is a busy bee, to say the least. A mother of five and grandmother in her forties, Charlotte lives in a suburb of Mbanza Ngungu, four hours from Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

© UNICEF DRC/2015/Gilliam
Charlotte Disukini walks with her kindergarten pupils in Mbanza Ngungu, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Charlotte's day starts a little after 5 a.m., when she leaves to go to church for daily prayer service. She then returns home to wake her husband and children and make them a simple breakfast of manioc leaves and rice.

At 7 a.m., she leaves for school. Charlotte is a kindergarten teacher, giving her heart and soul to her 4-year-old pupils. As soon as school is over at midday, Charlotte goes to the small piece of land she owns next to the school, where she grows her vegetables. Her modest income as a teacher and the yield from the piece of land her husband works on are not enough to feed the family.

Once Charlotte finishes her daily gardening, she starts the job that lies closest to her heart: community health worker.

The need to help

Charlotte became a community health worker a year ago, after her neighbours persuaded her to run for the elected position and voted overwhelmingly for her.

“When I was much younger, I wanted to be a doctor,” Charlotte says. “I always envied those men and women in long white coats. But when my father died, we could no longer afford that option. But my work as a community health worker answers to that need of mine, the need to help the community.”

Charlotte and dozens of community workers in the health zone of Mbanza Ngungu are crucial to the success of a programme that the Government of DRC launched 18 months ago with support from UNICEF. The programme is in response to A Promise Renewed, the call to action of the international community to make extra efforts to accelerate reduction of child and maternal mortality rates – in which DRC ranks among the highest in the world.

“Before, there used to be a lot of deaths because no one could afford to go to the clinic or buy medicine,” Charlotte says. “When a child was sick, you’d say, ‘Take them to the doctor,’ and they’d respond by saying, ‘But we don’t have any money.’”

To tackle the problem, UNICEF developed a new approach to treatment of childhood illness: the family kit. The kit includes paracetamol to control fever and zinc and oral rehydration salts to prevent dehydration from diarrhea. These can be used by a parent to treat a sick child before bringing him or her to the health centre.

© UNICEF DRC/2015/Gilliam
Along with teaching and nursing, Charlotte works a small plot of land to grow food for her family.

The family kit also includes a voucher that allows a child to be examined and treated at a cost of only 1,000 Congolese francs (about US$1), instead of CDF4,500. UNICEF pays the difference.

Checking in

While family kits offer a solution to the problem of providing sick children quick and efficient treatment, the kits also need to distributed and promoted in order to be effective.

Charlotte is the liaison responsible for some 40 families with children under 5 in her neighbourhood. She visits each of the families at least once a month.

“I am always popping in to see how this one is doing, and how the children are doing, if they’ve followed my advice, or if they’ve put up their mosquito net,” she says.

Mothers receive a kit and instructions in how to use it. Every three months, Charlotte makes sure they receive a new kit, so they will not be without essential medicines for a sick child.

When Charles, a local UNICEF staff member, challenges them by showing zinc tablets saying that these are meant to treat the fever in children, the mothers protest: “No, this is against diarrhea. Against fever, we have to use other pills,” they say. 

Scaling up

Charlotte's eyes brighten as the nurse of the local health centre says that since the programme was launched, no child in the district has died. Encouraged by these successes, the Government and UNICEF have decided to implement it in other health centres throughout the country, in partnership with the World Bank, the Global Fund, the European Union and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance.

It is expected that scaling up the programme will contribute to a further reduction of mortality rates rates for children under 5, which between 2007 and 2013 fell from 161 per thousand live births to 119.

Once the programme has reached its full coverage, it is projected to save the lives of 430,000 children under 5.



UNICEF Photography: Celebrating community health workers

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