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Campaign offers life-saving help to Ivoirian families

Ivoirian public health workers Jean Paul Adje (left) and Christopher Teau (background) help Anne Niamke hang an insecticide-treated mosquito net at her home in Lahou-Plage, Côte d'Ivoire. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

By Tim Tanton*
Dec. 15, 2008 | LAHOU-PLAGE, Côte d’Ivoire (UMNS)

Joseph Kokou Niamke arrived home one afternoon to find a new bed net in the room where his three children sleep.

Health workers and church volunteers carry nets to distribute in the village.

His wife, Anne Marie Niamke Ayemou, had received the net that day at the community center near their home in Lahou-Plage, a small West African fishing village that sits on a strip of sand between Lagune Ebrie and the Atlantic Ocean.

A fisherman, Joseph knows nets.

"This is good to see," he said, looking at the net hanging over the children’s bed. Speaking in French, the 31-year-old father noted that the net was made well and fit the bed. "It’s good. It is very beautiful."

Some 855,000 insecticide-treated nets were given out during a weeklong integrated health campaign in 18 health districts in Côte d’Ivoire. The Nov. 11-15 campaign included nationwide free vaccinations against measles, de-worming tablets and doses of vitamin A to strengthen immune systems.

The nets and free services were given to children between 9 months and 59 months old, so only one of the Niamke children, a 4-year-old boy, qualified. However, the net also will help prevent his two siblings, ages 6 and 8, from getting malaria, since all three sleep in the same bed.

For the Niamkes and other families around Côte d’Ivoire, the campaign made it possible to receive services that they otherwise might not have had.

"I am happy to have a net," said Marie Akissi Arriko of Agboville. Her children, ages 2 and 7, have had malaria several times, and her youngest, Mireille Gbedi Gbissa, had to be taken to the hospital as recently as September. Fine now, Mireille watched the older kids play in front of her house as her mother hung the new net inside.

Canoes and water taxis are the main
forms of transportation.

Partners in the health campaign included The United Methodist Church’s Côte d’Ivoire and Texas annual conferences, the United Nations Foundation, Population Services International, and the government’s Ministry of Health. The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, its United Methodist Committee on Relief unit, and United Methodist Communications were involved, along with several other organizations.

The Rev. Mark Bunch, associate pastor of Wesley United Methodist Church in Beaumont, Texas, helped distribute nets at a health station in the Mondoukou fishing village. Some women walked eight to 10 kilometers to the village to get the nets. They would not have received them if the campaign hadn’t gone to their village, he said.

In Agboville, Arriko walked about three kilometers with her two children and a neighbor’s family. The children carried the nets on their heads as they returned with their mothers along the dirt road back to their neighborhood.

Like many homes in the local villages, Arriko’s house is humble, with rooms that are not much bigger than the beds inside. The family obtains water from a well outside the front door. For many people, a mosquito net that would cost $10 in the United States is a major expense.

Reaching remote areas

While Agboville sits on a well-traveled highway north of the country’s commercial capital city of Abidjan, the coastal village of Lahou-Plage to the west is most easily accessible by boat and was one of the more remote destinations for the health campaign.

Cyrille Kouassi cries after learning that he is too old to receive a net.

Despite the geographic hurdles, the effort covered the entire Grand-Lahou health district, distributing about 20,300 nets, said Jean Paul Adje, a supervisor for Population Services International on HIV/AIDS and malaria.

"Either we hire a bicycle or a motorbike or a boat to reach the area we want to reach," he said, speaking through a translator.

Providing nets to Lahou-Plage and nearby villages required taking one of two boats from the mainland. The boats are known as the "Catholic boat" and the "Methodist boat" and are nearly identical, each painted blue and bearing the weathered look of heavy use on the vast lagoon. A pilot operates the outboard motor in the stern, while one or two boys sit in the bow, ready to use poles to push the boat through the water if the motor fails.

The beach outside the village is lined with long, narrow boats, some outfitted with motors, others with sails. Most of the craft are made of wood and bear names in French or English that reflect the faith of these seagoing people: "Aime Ton Prochain" (love your neighbor), "Jesus Never Fails," and "More Blessing."

The shore is a busy spot, where women and children wash newly caught fish in the lagoon water, and pigs scurry around and forage in the mud. Unlike the homes in Arriko’s neighborhood in Agboville, most of the village’s dwellings are built of wood and palm leaves, though a few sturdier-looking concrete structures dot the community. The Niamkes live in one such home, which they share with Joseph’s 99-year-old mother and his brother’s family.

A parent’s pain

Anne Marie Niamke managed to keep her children malaria-free for the past six years with the help of a net. Before then, the first child got malaria frequently, as did the parents.

Bernard Beugre, 12, unloads insecticide-treated mosquito nets from the United Methodist water taxi.

"It’s painful for me knowing that my child has malaria," said the 36-year-old mother. Symptoms include fatigue, fever, shaking and vomit.

Noticing at night that the child’s body was hot, she would try cooling it with a wet towel. The following morning, she would treat the child with traditional medicine—a liquid made of a variety of leaves and paper and administered into the child’s rectum to clean out the insides, and another liquid made only of leaves and applied into the nose.

If malaria isn’t treated quickly, "it will easily kill the child," Anne Marie said. "Malaria is a dangerous disease. You should not play with it."

The mosquito-borne disease kills one in five children under age 5 in Africa, at the rate of one death every 30 seconds.

Measles is also a problem in Côte d’Ivoire. The Niamkes know three families that have lost children to measles.

"Once a child has measles, if he is not treated well, he can die easily," Anne Marie said. She and her husband were glad to get the vaccination for their 4-year-old.

Bigger killer than AIDS

The campaign enabled many people to receive health services that they otherwise could not have afforded.

Ange-Virgile Niamke clutches his mosquito net following the distribution.

"It would have been very complicated to have the financial resources," said Lucien Kouadio Koua, who lives in the town of Bonoua, southeast of Abidjan and about a two-hour drive from Grand-Lahou.

"If this campaign was not done, what would we do? We would die," said Koua, who works on the mayor’s staff. "Malaria is very dangerous here in Bonoua. It’s even killed more than HIV/AIDS."

His brother’s son died four years ago from malaria. The child was only 5 years old.

Koua’s wife, Marie-Sylvie Bougoulei Keke, 34, said their children require medical care four or five times a year because of malaria.

They go to the hospital but they also use traditional medicines. "Because the medicines are very expensive, we use the traditional leaves," Koua said. Medicine to treat malaria can range up to 30,000 Central African francs, or about $60.

Mosquito nets can cost the equivalent of $9 or $10 in the market, but those nets often aren’t reliable, Koua said.

The family previously had a net only for their newborn child. Thanks to the campaign, his entire family—three children and the parents—can be protected at night.

Mosquito breeding areas are evident throughout the region, as huge piles of garbage line the roads and puddles of stagnant water are a common sight. Local governments lack the resources for disposing of garbage.

Flanked by water taxis from the United Methodist and Catholic churches,
villagers sort their catch of fish.

Koua said the mayor of Bonoua puts out containers for people to dump their rubbish, but the container sites are too far away for some people, and night dumping on the roadside is common.

While an additional 300,000 nets were en route in November, that still left some 2 million children in the targeted age range without them. The Rev. Cynthia Harvey, co-leader of the Texas Conference delegation, reflected on the need as her group prepared to return to the United States.

"We’re committed to coming back," she said, "and making sure that some time in our lifetime we can eliminate that need for standing in line to wait for a net, where we can provide nets for all the children in this country."

*Tanton is director of the Media Group at United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video clips

Anne Marie Niamke: On affording treatment

Anne Marie Niamke: “It’s painful for me.”

Lucien Kouadio Koua: “Malaria is very dangerous.”

Lucien Kouadio Koua: “The children were happy.”

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