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South Sudan: Set for another severe malaria season
Malaria kills more people in South Sudan than any other disease. Large spikes in malaria are now raising the possibility of a second season with exceptionally high numbers of cases and preventable deaths unless urgent action is taken to reinforce access to treatment in high-risk areas.
Médécins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) treated over 170,000 patients for malaria in South Sudan last year, when the number of patients who sought treatment at some MSF facilities was more than triple the total from 2013.
Exceptionally severe malaria season
Cumulatively, malaria accounted for 72 percent of disease-related deaths across the country in 2014, according to UN statistics.
This year, MSF is seeing disturbing indications that parts of the country may be poised for a second exceptionally severe season.
In South Sudan, the malaria season typically coincides with the rainy season, approximately from May to December. This year the rains have been slow to arrive, increasing MSF’s concern that malaria may accelerate if the rainy season picks up.
Five-year-old Achan’s family have been by her bedside continuously since she was admitted to MSF’s pediatric ward in Aweil Hospital, located in the #malaria-prevalent northwestern quarter of South Sudan.
When Achan arrived at the hospital, she was completely comatose. Her small body was convulsing with seizures and she was running a fever of nearly 40 degrees. “All of us were afraid she was going to die,” says her father as he gestures to the five family members around Achan’s bed. © Jacob Kuehn/MSF
What is MSF doing?
In our project in Aweil hospital, Northern Bahr Al-Ghazal, the number of patients hospitalised with life-threatening, complex malaria has already exceeded 700 since May; on track with the extremely high numbers of admissions last year.
In response, we have reinforced our medical team and are setting up an additional 40 hospital beds, supplementing existing capacity of over 160 beds, in anticipation of even more patients in the coming months.
In Agok, we have trained a network of community healthcare workers who work directly in the community to test and treat simple cases earlier, helping to decrease the risk of patients developing severe malaria. MSF has already treated more than double the number of malaria patients here compared to this stage in last year’s malaria season.
In Gogrial, we are also witnessing a second year of alarming malaria rates, with 9,208 patients treated so far this season. In response, we have set up a dedicated malaria treatment service in the MSF health centre, as well as supporting other health centres in the surrounding area to increase the capacity to diagnose and treat the disease at a local level.
Her parents do not have money for public transport so MSF gives them high-energy biscuits so Ajeth will at least have food for the long trip. It’s an eleven-hour walk. “Last year, my son had malaria too, so I also brought him to MSF,” the mother explains. “In our village, the issue of malaria this year and last year is very serious.” © Jacob Kuehn/MSF
Supply of drugs
Supplies of essential drugs, access to treatment and preventive measures are crucial in the months ahead to ensure people, mostly children, don’t die needlessly of a disease that is both treatable and preventable.
In the Bentiu PoC, MSF has treated more than 6,000 malaria patients in 2015. Large scale and ongoing displacement in conflict-affected areas of South Sudan may have significantly influenced the malaria trend observed, with people on the move walking through the night or sleeping outside - increasing biting exposure and risk of infection.
MSF stresses the need to be prepared for the possibility of another severe malaria season in South Sudan. While the medical needs in conflict-affected areas of the country are beyond critical, basic primary healthcare cannot be neglected anywhere in the country.
Otherwise, a second devastating malaria season could result in an untold number of preventable deaths.