By Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi
At the northern tip of the country, and off the shores of lake Malawi, lies Karonga district. One of Malawi’s largest border posts, Songwe border, is in this district. Every year, thousands of travelers, traders, refugees and migrants trickle into the country through this border. Making it an area prone to health epidemics. In 2018, when Ebola broke out in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, the Karonga District Health Office (DHO) was put on alert.
“We knew we had to prepare well for Ebola,” explains Lewis Tukula, an environmental health officer at Karonga DHO. “We had to ensure people coming through the borders are properly screened, including those going to the refugee camp in Karonga. We had to prepare where to contain people with suspected cases, build the capacity of our health workers staff and do follow up of the patients. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the resources to train necessary personnel and get supplies to manage Ebola, if there is an outbreak in the district.”
To their delight, the UK Aid stepped in to fund the purchase of Ebola supplies and training of health workers in border district across Malawi.
“You cannot treat Ebola without resources. When we heard that the UK Aid was going to pump required resources, everyone was relieved because it put off the pressure we were under,” Lewis says. “We received some supplies, such as personal protective equipment, coveralls, goggles, face mask, beds, gumboots, aprons, face shields, medicines including IV Fluids, antibiotics, injection materials, syringes and a number of other consumable supplies.”
Training the health workers
In Karonga, about 172 health workers were trained. This included clinicians, nurses’ doctors and health surveillance assistants who work in the villages and Songwe Boarder. Some media personnel from community radios were also part of this training as they play a critical role in sensitization and awareness through radio programmes.
Moses Chilongo, clinician and one of the trainees, recalls being excited when he heard he was selected for the training. He was eager to gain more knowledge on the disease. The 32-year-old clinician had already done his own research reading on Ebola and wanted to learn more about how it comes about, and how people including health workers can protect themselves.
“We were taught about the symptoms that people show when they contract Ebola. We learned how to manage patients with Ebola, and how to protect ourselves from the disease as health workers,” describes Moses. “The supplies donated by the UK Aid have also been helpful. We now have protective gear, glucometers, a blood pressure machine, and an infrared thermometer.”
The Ebola scare in the district
Moses and his fellow health workers in the rapid response team found themselves dealing with an Ebola scare in the district a few weeks after they were trained. They were told by the Director of health and social services at Karonga DHO that there is a suspected case of Ebola in Kaporo Health Center near the Songwe border. The patient had been sick for some time. However, when he started showing symptoms similar to Ebola, such as bleeding in the mouth, nose and eyes, the clinician at Kaporo Health Center called the rapid response team for help.
“The patient did have symptoms similar to Ebola. We decided not to take any chance and manage him as an Ebola suspect. We knew it could also have been a bleeding disorder called disseminated intravascular coagulation. He was moved from Kaporo Health Centre to the Ebola treatment centre at Karonga district hospital. Upon arrival, we made sure to follow all the protocols that we were taught during our Ebola preparedness training such as Ebola infection prevention,” explains Moses. “Samples were done on the patient and were sent to South Africa for analysis. The results were negative. The patient did not have Ebola.”
Support from UK Aid and UNICEF
Through UNICEF, the UK Aid provided the Government of Malawi £478,000 for Ebola preparedness, prevention work, and supplies. The funding has helped to equip health workers with essential skills to deal with Ebola cases, and provided hospitals with medical equipment and drugs for Ebola prevention.
“There is no Ebola in Malawi. However, it is important to ensure that health centres and their workers are prepared for the unlikely event in case a suspected case comes to Malawi after visiting the DRC outbreak areas,” says Tedla Damte, UNICEF Malawi Chief of Health. “The supplies will help to detect such stray cases and respond immediately.”