Expectant Mothers Receive Extra Care Through NetsforLife®

Mumile and Nafissa live in the village of Wakuan, in northeastern Ghana, near the Togo border. Both in their early thirties, Mumile has an infant and Nafissa has a four-year-old child plus one on the way. Between the poisonous snakes that inhabit the region (Wakuan comes from “wak”, which means “snake”) and the mosquitoes that spread malaria, there is a lot for a mother to worry about. Since the nearest health clinic is 10 kilometers (over six miles) away, preventive measures that keep women and children from getting sick or needing emergency care are extremely valuable.

Episcopal Relief & Development and its malaria prevention partnership, NetsforLife®, are working with their Ghanaian partner ADDRO (the Anglican Diocesan Development and Relief Organization) to address the need for preventive care at the grassroots level. Active in 17 countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa, NetsforLife® is training local volunteers, called Malaria Control Agents (MCAs), to educate their communities about malaria, hang nets in homes, and provide follow-up to ensure that the nets are being used and maintained properly. In many places, the MCAs do broader health monitoring and advocacy, including encouraging pregnant women to seek out antenatal care. This helps ensure that the women receive the recommended number of check-ups during pregnancy, along with IPTp (Intermittent Preventive Treatment in pregnancy) to protect them from malaria.

Mumile and Nafissa were visited by MCAs in Wakuan, who stressed the importance of IPTp for malaria protection during pregnancy, a time when women and the babies they are carrying are especially vulnerable to infection. Both women had previously received mosquito nets from NetsforLife®, which dramatically reduced their risk of being bitten, but the MCAs insisted that IPTp – receiving the medication at the clinic and then completing the course at home – was essential during pregnancy. For Mumile and Nafissa, having mosquito nets above their sleeping areas and using IPTp has had a major impact.

“I visited the hospital at least six times a year [due to malaria] and it was taking a heavy toll on my finances,” said Mumile. “But since last year [when I received the mosquito net] I have not visited the hospital except for my IPTp, which the volunteers told me was necessary for my health. I am very happy and want to thank them for doing this.”

To further reduce barriers to accessing care, NetsforLife® is helping to pilot programs in Zambia and Angola where Community Health Workers (CHWs) receive training from the respective Ministries of Health and actually bring IPTp medication with them during home visits. Pairing IPTp with antenatal care is the best way to ensure that pregnant women get both; but in circumstances where it is not possible for a woman to travel for facility-based care, IPTp administration in the home can be a life-saving intervention.

“One of the core principles of the NetsforLife® methodology is training community volunteers and building local capacity to develop and carry out strategies that improve health and wellbeing,” said Kirsten Laursen Muth, Episcopal Relief & Development’s Senior Director for International Programs. “NetsforLife® specifically focuses on malaria, but during home visits, the Malaria Control Agents have opportunities to take a more holistic approach to health advocacy. Depending on their training, they can share information about nutrition, handwashing and hygiene, or even HIV/AIDS, depending on the local context. Maternal and child health is just one area where they are making a difference.”

NetsforLife® is a partnership of corporations, foundations and faith-based organizations working to fight malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. The program was launched in 2006, and as of the end of 2011 it had trained nearly 74,000 MCAs, distributed 8.5 million nets, and saved the lives of over 100,000 children under age five. In communities where NetsforLife® is active, the number of malaria cases has decreased by up to 45%.

“One of the official themes for World Malaria Day this year is ‘sustaining the gains’, which NetsforLife® is striving to do,” Muth commented. “The program has had significant success in reducing malaria-related deaths through net distribution and the training of local volunteers, but the lasting effect of NetsforLife®’s work is in creating a ‘net culture,’ where people understand the value of nets, and their use becomes a part of everyday life. Continuing education and follow-up by the MCAs is going to be essential going forward.”