Relief organization reports success in Congo

IMA implements life-prolonging measures, particularly for women and children

March 19, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

An international relief organization based in Carroll County has re-established primary health care, battled disease and built basic infrastructure that will help ensure the health of nearly 8 million people in the remotest areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

IMA World Health, headquartered in New Windsor, has released the results of its four-year project in the central African country, an effort funded with more than $40 million in U.S. aid. According to the group, the project trained more than 33,000 native health care workers, vaccinated nearly 1 million children and delivered treatment that has saved countless lives.

"This report is a lot more than numbers," said Richard L. Santos, IMA president. "Its impact goes way beyond the indicators of its success. This is a hallmark project."

When IMA launched Project AXxes in 2006, it intended to revitalize the entire system of health care in the region, rather than treat a single health issue. It tackled an area where more than two-thirds of the health facilities and much infrastructure didn't function four years ago

When he visited Congo last year, Santos said, he saw IMA at work.

"I drove hours on dirt roads to reach sites where I saw clinics bustling with primary health care," he said. "The walls were lined with posters delivering health messages. The staff showed me stores of medications."

Project AXxes restored a fragile network of hospitals and clinics, many of them damaged during a prolonged civil war. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the project has delivered primary health care, family planning and AIDS counseling and medication, and has led to a significant decrease in maternal and infant mortality in a country with one of the world's highest birth rates.

The accomplishments are remarkable and enduring, said Larry Sthreshley, IMA's country representative, who holds a doctorate in public health.

"We had a team that knew what to do and how to make it work," said Sthreshley, who was born in Congo to Presbyterian missionaries and was in New Windsor last week. "We have put the resources in place to address the major health needs of this community."

IMA, an association of 12 Protestant relief and development agencies established a little over 50 years ago, brought decades of experience working in Africa to the project. The organization had successfully completed a $28 million project in western Congo when it won one of the largest USAID grants to tackle the eastern area.

Thousands lacked access to safe drinking water and sanitation. Clinics operated without essential medicines and supplies for even basic care, and health care workers were ill-prepared to meet the needs of the population. IMA said the region has now rehabilitated 217 health facilities and constructed 130 facility incinerators for safe waste disposal. It has also built 629 spring caps that deliver safe drinking water, along with 196 clinic latrines and 6,313 community latrines.

IMA, also a partner in a $355 million U.S. initiative to combat AIDS in Africa, incorporated that battle into efforts to fight tuberculosis, malaria and other parasitic diseases. The nation of 65 million, roughly the size of the eastern U.S., has experienced a lowering of the HIV infection rate from 4 percent to 2.7 percent in the past four years, according to the report.

The greatest strides may be in maternal and child health, IMA said. Women who used to deliver their babies in primitive conditions that threatened the life of mother and child now receive prenatal and postnatal care as well as counseling. Nearly 90 percent of births are attended by IMA-trained workers.

"Millions have benefited from this project, especially women and children," Santos said. "And they will continue to benefit for years to come."

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