Local agency to lead Congo relief

Based in Carroll, international nonprofit wins $40 million grant to aid war-torn region

October 17, 2006|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

An international relief agency based in Carroll County has secured a $40 million federal grant to help restore the public health system in war-torn areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, U.S. authorities said yesterday.

Interchurch Medical Assistance Inc., a nonprofit organization that works through a worldwide network of faith-based groups from its offices in New Windsor, will re-establish hospitals, clinics and medical schools that serve 8 million people in eastern Congo, the area most affected by nearly eight years of civil strife in the central African nation. Since 1998, about 4 million people have died in the Congo as a result of war, disease and malnutrition, officials said.

"We will build on what people were able to hang on to during the war," said Paul Derstine, Interchurch Medical Assistance president. "Many of these health workers stayed in place throughout the war, but the infrastructure is in disarray. Now we can come in and carry forward with them to bring basic services to people who have had very little access to health care. "

Derstine met with U.S. Agency for International Development officials in Nairobi, Kenya, last week to finalize the agreement that awarded one of the largest grants in the federal agency's history to a nonprofit.

"There are only two signatures on this document," Derstine said. "Mine and the U.S. government's."

USAID officials confirmed yesterday that the grant agreement has been signed and gives IMA oversight of the money. During the next three years, officials said they expect the grant will provide essential health services while rebuilding the beleaguered system.

The money will mean immunizations, maternal and newborn care, nutritional counseling, tuberculosis treatment, even bed nets to prevent malaria for a population that has received little or no health care for nearly a decade.

In cooperation with the Protestant Church of Congo, World Vision International, Catholic Relief Services and several other groups, Interchurch Medical Assistance has launched Project AXxes, a three-year program designed to deliver basic medical services in the eastern areas of the Congo.

The vast, mineral-rich country is roughly the size of the Eastern United States and is home to more than 50 million people.

The Bloomberg School of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University will evaluate the long-term results of the effort, Derstine said.

IMA, established in 1960 on the campus of the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor, has a successful history of administering government grants. It received $25 million from USAID five years ago to bolster Congo's established health system.

IMA is also a partner in America's $355 million initiative to combat AIDS in Africa. The nonprofit agency has received federal grants to fight tuberculosis, malaria and other parasitic diseases, such as river blindness, throughout Africa.

Until recently, combat in eastern Congo, an area many call the world's most dangerous place, deterred any relief initiatives, Dr. Bill Clemmer said yesterday from Kinshasa, capital of the Congo. Clemmer, a family physician, has administered Interchurch programs in Africa for the past 15 years.

"This grant will mean restoring life and hope to 8 million people in one of the most needy areas of the country," Clemmer said.

IMA can rely on its vast network of missionaries throughout the Congo to re-establish basic health services and improve the treatment and prevention of disease. The survival of that network, despite the civil war, as well as IMA's record as the chief heath care provider persuaded USAID to award the grant, officials said.

The effort will re-establish about 60 health zones, each with a centralized hospital and several outlying clinics throughout eastern Congo. The funds will also pay to train additional staff and to upgrade equipment and supplies.


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