Aid group meets to improve health care in the Congo

Grant to help system ruined by civil war

Carroll County

November 25, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Dr. Bill Clemmer, an American Baptist missionary working in the Congo,travels however he can to remote health clinics throughout a vast African country of 50 million people.

He often risks his life to deliver medical supplies, sometimes by plane, river boat or utility vehicle. On a recent trip up the Congo River in a dugout canoe, he arrived at a village of more than 2,000 residents who are 10 hours from the nearest hospital. They rely on a small clinic for maternity, pediatric and adult health care.

"They told me they were hoping that someone would come and help them and they did not want to appear idle," said Clemmer who was in New Windsor this month for a weeklong planning session with Interchurch Medical Assistance, an association of Protestant churches.

Help has arrived for many such clinics. IMA has received a $25 million grant from U.S. foreign aid program USAID, which it is using to re-establish the Democratic Republic of the Congo's health care system, which has crumbled amid years of civil war.

"This grant is the catalyst to get the country's resources going and help them help themselves," said Dan Metzel, who was born in the Congo to Presbyterian missionaries, has worked there and is now IMA grants manager in New Windsor.

Clemmer and other IMA representatives, including Dr. Leon Kintaudi, a Congolese national who administers the IMA program in Kinshasa, met in the western Carroll town this month to chart the revitalization of its network of clinics throughout the African county.

"USAID brought us hope and where there is hope a lot can be done," Kintaudi said. "Before there was no hope. Now we feel we are getting somewhere. We can revive a health system that, in some areas, was virtually dead.

"It will take a lot for the Congo to get on its feet and without outside support, it won't happen," he added. "This grant is a starting point."

IMA will rely on missionaries such as Clemmer to strengthen what was once one of the most efficient health systems in Africa.

"The Congo is not an easy place to do the simplest things, but it is well suited to those of us who feel delivering health care is more rewarding than making a profit," said Clemmer, who lives in Kinshasa with his wife and four children. "Without roads and bridge, you have to be creative about transportation."

Democratic Republic of Congo, the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River, has less than 2,000 miles of paved roads and most of those are around the capital, Kinshasa, which is the largest city in Central Africa. In the city of 7 million, 20 women a day die in childbirth for lack of basic care.

During his visit to the village of Yalokombe, Clemmer found that a whitewashed medical building had been pillaged repeatedly during the last three years of civil war. He saw patients sleeping on the concrete floor with no beds, mattresses or furniture. A makeshift baby scale, a stethoscope and one pair of surgical scissors were the only equipment. The nurses, all working without pay, rotated the single white coat to give themselves a professional look when they came on duty.

The country has a comprehensive primary health care system, with decentralized health zones, many run by church groups. Many clinics survived the war and what is now an uneasy truce, but they are sadly depleted, said Dr. Frank Baer, a former missionary who now serves as an adviser to IMA.

"They offered care that was accessible, available and affordable for people where they live and work through one of the best-designed systems in all of Africa," Baer said.

Since the fighting broke out three years ago, nearly 2.5 million people have died, most from treatable diseases. Malaria, malnutrition and diarrhea are the most common causes of death. About 75 percent of children born during the war die by their second birthday, Baer said.

"Congo is the richest in natural resources in all of Africa and that is to its detriment," Baer said. "Everyone is fighting over it."

The grant has already helped IMA ship 200 tons of supplies to the Congo within the past few months. Forty tons of medicines have already replenished clinics in 30 health zones, Metzel said.

The shipments also included bicycles, motorcycles and other vehicles to improve transportation. Donated computers and digital cameras are creating a communication network, which allows services to get to the community level, said Vickie Johnson, IMA communications manager in New Windsor.

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