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Children under cerebral palsy siege

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Alongside HIV and Aids and tuberculosis, malaria is one of the major health burdens in Malawi.

And among the serious effects of malaria is cerebral palsy, a condition so rife in this malaria-endemic country but not getting as much attention as it deserves, experts have observed.

In Mangochi, for instance, Traditional Authority Mponda alone has more than 200 children with cerebral palsy.

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One of them is Cassim. Now 14 years old, he has had no privilege of being able to sit, walk and ran as is the case with most children when they are growing up.

If he is not on his mother’s back, then he is laid down so that his mother can perform some duties.

At that age, Cassim has never been inside a classroom. Instead, he has been in and out of hospital for various treatments relating to his condition.

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Now, his mother, Mariam Nkumba of Kanyenga Village, Traditional Authority Nankumba, has started to give up hope.

“We have been in and out of hospital. It is expensive for me because I don’t have any stable source of income. But he is my son. Sometimes I cry when I see children of his age growing into men,” Mkumba told The Sunday Times.

Nkumba said her child was born normal but his condition started changing when he was diagnosed with malaria when he was four weeks old.

She has no idea that malaria can paralyse children such that she has believed that her son was bewitched.

After completing the malaria dose, Cassim kept on crying uncontrollably. Some of his body parts such as legs, arms and head started withering, instead of developing.

That was the beginning of cerebral palsy in Cassim.

“They told me that there is no medicine for this disease apart from physiotherapy. So, I have been taking him to the hospital for physiotherapy until last year when they told me that at his age, he cannot be assisted at local hospitals,” she said.

According to medical officials at Mangochi District Hospital, cerebral palsy is ravaging a lot of children in the lakeshore district.

For example, there are about 212 children with cerebral palsy that are undergoing rehabilitation within 37 villages under Traditional Authority Mponda alone.

One of them is five-year old Abudula Allie who will be six years on July 3. At that age, his body size is like that of a baby who is less than a year old.

Just like Cassim, his condition also started when he was three weeks old. Until now, Allie does not crawl, sit or walk.

His health passport also mentions cerebral palsy as his condition, which also started after he was diagnosed with malaria.

Abdul and a few other children with similar conditions are undergoing physiotherapy once every month at a mobile clinic which is conducted by the Mangochi District Hospital officials with support from Malawi Children’s Village (MCV).

Clara Thawale, a rehabilitation officer at Mangochi District Hospital said while lack of appropriate care during pregnancy and delivery can cause cerebral palsy in children, malaria is the leading cause.

“When a baby is attacked by malaria before it reaches one year old, chances that it might develop cerebral palsy are high because the malaria usually affects the nervous system.

“Sometimes, failure by pregnant women to take all the required medication when pregnant also affects the unborn child,” Thawale said.

She observed that cerebral palsy cases are common in the country, but get little attention because they are taken as any other disability.

“The extent of the problem is huge. We are losing a lot of children to disability. Most children have disabilities today as a result of malaria attacking them while they are young,” she said.

In Malawi, about four million people are diagnosed with malaria every year, according to data by the World Health Organisation and the Ministry of Health.

Children under five years and pregnant women are at a high risk for malaria morbidity compared to other groups, reports say.

Since 2005, the Malawi Government has been implementing comprehensive malaria control programmes that target more than

85 percent of the population. The two main strategies have been preventing the malaria vector mosquitoes from biting people and case management.

Executive Director of MCV, Felix Chirombo, fears that more children will develop disabilities if authorities do not quickly find ways of managing the effects of cerebral palsy in under-five children.

“Our domain is assisting vulnerable children. But we started assisting children with disabilities after noticing that a lot of them were developing disabilities due to malaria attacks.

“So, while we are assisting the disabled children, we are also promoting mosquito net use so that we prevent further cases,” Chirombo said.

Malawi has been spending huge sums of money towards the fight against malaria, but there has been little attention towards related complications, says community health activist, Maziko Matemba.

He argues that Malawi has a lot of resources to help the country tackle malaria, but that authorities are not properly channelling the resources.

“We have a lot of children that developed complications due to malaria. They are given little attention because many people in the communities resort to seeking help from traditional healers when they see that a child is developing complications,” he says.

Matemba further says the unavailability of health facilities in most rural areas is also contributing to a rise in cases of cerebral palsy in Malawi because some pregnant women are unable to access health services.

“Families need to be encouraged to sleep under mosquito nets so that pregnant women and infants are protected from malaria. At the moment, there is a malaria vaccine going around; so we hope this will one day help to save children’s lives,” he says.

He also encourages government to use part of the allocation for malaria fight to establish rehabilitation centres for children that have developed disabilities due to malaria for them to be rehabilitated.

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