Expert: Treatment necessary to break malaria cycle

Leaders of the United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign continue to believe that defeating malaria requires a comprehensive approach which includes prevention, treatment, education and good communications.

This was the message delivered at a training event hosted by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society for church leaders in Kindu, Democratic Republic of the Congo on July 17-18.

Sessions focused on a broad range of themes related to peacemaking, leadership development, health and wholeness. The plight of communities in central Congo suffering from malaria was a special concern.

Among those sharing expertise was Dr. Lars Bitsch-Larsen of Norway. Bitsch-Larsen, son of a Methodist missionary doctor stationed in the Kindu area for many years, lives now in Bergen, Norway. But he spends his vacation each summer traveling and providing medical care in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

His work is supported by a leading United Methodist in the Central Congo Conference, Chief Prospère Tunda.  Tunda is both a member of the regional congress and a tribal chief of the Tunda tribe.

“We really need to rethink the way we understand malaria,” suggested Bitsch-Larsen. “Human beings are the ‘hosts;’ mosquitoes are only the ‘carriers.’ The best way to break the cycle of malaria, is to focus on healing the host. Every mosquito carrying the plasmodium parasite got the parasite from an infected human.

“Mosquito nets do help with prevention, but to defeat malaria, we need to concentrate on preventing the transfer of the parasite from humans to mosquitoes. This is how they defeated malaria in Europe. They simply treated everyone who got sick.”

Bitsch-Larsen went on to say that the idea next step would be to place at least one trained health worker in each community — someone who can accurately diagnose malaria and dispense quality treatments to all of those infected.

“The medicine works,” he said. “It kills the parasites in a matter of hours, less than a day. If parasites are killed, the malaria cycle is broken. Even if mosquitoes bite the patient, they will no longer get the plasmodium parasite, and they will not be able pass on the disease.”

A study in the villages of Oye and Kembe conducted in 2011 with followup in 2012 proved encouraging, Bitsch-Larsen said. In 2011, the two villages had a 50 percent incidence of malaria. Health workers treated everyone, and the incidence of malaria dropped to 24 percent the following year.

Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda of the East Congo Episcopal Area hosted a dinner at his home for Chief Prospère Tunda, Bitsch-Larsen, local organizer Omakinda Odimba Ado, the Rev. Neal Christie and me. Christie and I both work the Board of Church and Society.

Bitsch-Larsen and Tunda were to begin a health care mission the next morning with plans to go by SUV into some of the most inaccessible areas of the region.

For many people in the bush areas, health care is a rare luxury. One of the most frequent injuries, often untreated, is hernia. Bitsch-Larsen can repair these injuries with a simple surgery.

The Board of Church and Society sponsored this leadership development training in Central Congo and a similar training session for pastors and church leaders in Kinshasa. Board representatives also visited local churches, United Methodist schools and other ministry sites in Kindu and Kinshasa.

*Childers is director of advocacy for Imagine No Malaria and director of annual conference relations for the Board of Church and Society.

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