By Silvia Ximenes and Natasha Cleary, ChildFund Timor-Leste
April 25 is World Malaria Day, a time to recognize the toll this disease takes on many people worldwide, particularly children under the age of 5.
It’s mid-morning off tropical Timor-Leste’s coast, in the mountains of Liquica district. The wet season is coming to an end, so the trees and scrub are still green, and fruit and vegetables are abundant. But the wet season also creates an abundance of mosquitos.
Elderly patriarch Jose Dias lives in one of the only houses in his village that’s made of concrete; most are made of bamboo and palm leaves. Despite its stronger foundations, the house lacks window coverings and fly screens, like all houses here, and it is full of mosquitos. They swarm as Jose speaks about protecting his growing family from malaria.
“My family received two bed nets from ChildFund, and the volunteer also gave us information about how to use them properly and why we need to use them,” he says. “Giving information with nets is important, because some people didn’t know what they were for and used them to catch fish or protect their trees from pests.”
But there are no bed nets in Jose’s garden. While his adult children are working in the fields harvesting vegetables, Jose stays at home with his infant grandson, who sleeps under a net, protected from the mosquitos.
Community health volunteers trained through ChildFund have visited his home and hold group education sessions in his community, raising awareness of disease prevention, like how and why to use nets, and advocating the use of local health clinics. Last year, ChildFund distributed 950 insecticide-treated nets in Liquica district.
Up the hill from Jose’s house is 7-year-old Jakson’s bamboo and palm leaf house. Jakson contracted malaria a few years ago, before his family started using nets. “When I had malaria, I just stayed at home sleeping. I couldn’t go to school or play with my friends,” he says. “Jakson had a fever and headache,” explains his mother, Agostinha. “I knew that I had to quickly take him to the health post to get medication and treatment. Juleta [a volunteer] had already informed my family and the community.
“If I lost a child due to sickness, life could never be the same again,” Agostinha continues.
She has four children who are 7 and younger, and they now all sleep under bed nets provided by ChildFund. Children younger than 5 are at increased risk of rapid progression of malaria, as well as more severe mutations and a higher likelihood of death, according to the World Health Organization.
But there is hope. Through interventions like distribution of bed nets and increasing community awareness, malaria has almost been eradicated in Liquica. Last year, ChildFund distributed 950 insecticide-treated bed nets in Liquica district.
“In 2006, 220 of every 1,000 people who took a blood test had malaria,” says Pedro Paulo Gomes, director of the Liquica District Health Service. “Nowadays it is less than two. The dramatic decrease has been achieved through successful interventions like training [of health staff], bed net distribution and behavior-change information provided to the community.”
Gomes adds that the Ministry of Health has a good working relationship with ChildFund. “We work in partnership to train health staff and volunteers on community health education.”