The number of people treated for malaria in projects run by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has soared by 250% since 2009 in six provinces — half of the vast country — and accelerated even more sharply in recent months.
The reasons for the trend are not clear, although it is thought renewed fighting by militias has made it increasingly difficult for people to access prevention and treatment for the disease.
The agency said the rise was particularly alarming because of a high number of severe malaria patients requiring hospital care and urgent blood transfusions as a result of anaemia. It said it had deployed additional emergency medical teams in four provinces.
“Treatment outside the cities remains especially weak due to unaffordability or geographic inaccessibility,” said Dr Jorgen Stassijns, a malaria specialist for the organisation. “In some areas, healthcare is simply non-existent. Even when treatment is available, the drugs are sometimes inadequate or outdated.”
In 2009, its teams treated more than 45 000 people with malaria. In 2011, the total rose to more than 158 000. So far this year, more than 85 000 people have been treated.
Violence by armed groups may be a primary cause of the increase. Villagers are sometimes too scared to sleep at home under mosquito nets, which were often left behind when they flee. In North and South Kivu provinces, and recently in the northern area in Katanga province, a lack of security and renewed fighting prevents people obtaining healthcare.
The organisation quoted an unnamed nurse at a clinic in South Kivu as saying: “Some of our patients come from 10km away to our health centre, on foot, bicycle, motorcycle or in a canoe if they live on the peninsula [and] most are ill with malaria.
“Each week we treat about 600 to 900 patients, often more than 100 patients a day. MSF distributes mosquito nets daily. They are given to pregnant women during their prenatal consultations, as well as to children who test positive for malaria and are under the age of five.
Alex Perry, author of a book about the international effort, Lifeblood: How to Change the World, One Dead Mosquito at a Time, said: “This latest news from Congo compounds a bad few months for the global campaign against malaria. In February a Lancet study claimed the number of deaths each year was 1.2-million, not 655000 as the campaign claimed. Earlier this month, researchers found evidence that resistance to the main treatment, artemisinin, was rising in Asia.” —