Red Cross volunteers prevent malaria deaths in Niger

John Haskew, in Niamey

As the rainy season approaches in Niger, hundreds of Red Cross volunteers are continuing their campaign to raise awareness of malaria and encourage mothers to protect their children by using treated mosquito nets.

Clouds gather in the sky in the early afternoon in Niamey. They offer some respite from the relentless midday sun but they also warn of the imminent rainy season.

It is a season that brings in its wake malaria, Niger's predominant killer of children under the age of five. Now is the time for hundreds of Red Cross volunteers to mobilise, raising awareness of malaria prevention and helping to save the lives of the very young.

The volunteers' work is another chapter in a long-running programme to meet the threat of malaria. They played a key role in a nationwide distribution of long-lasting insecticidal treated mosquito nets in 2005. Thanks to that effort, most families with a child under five now own one of these nets.

In 2006, nearly 3,000 volunteers joined a national education campaign, teaching how malaria is transmitted and reinforcing the correct use of nets to prevent infection. Nearly 300,000 mothers and over 500,000 children under five were reached by the campaign.

The volunteers' efforts ensured that nearly 90 per cent of the nets distributed were used during last year's rainy season. Compared to the previous year, the incidence of malaria during Niger's rainy season fell by 37 per cent and the death rate by 56 per cent.

There is still work to be done. The nets need to hang again this year and more people need to understand the facts. Nearly 40 per cent of mothers still do not know that malaria is transmitted by the bite of a mosquito and over half do not realize the importance of a properly-used mosquito net in protecting their children.

This is why over 1,000 Red Cross volunteers have this year gone from door to door, visiting mothers and educating them about the causes and prevention of malaria, particularly emphasising the correct use of the nets. The campaign was concentrated in four regions of Niger with the lowest use of nets and highest incidence of malaria.

In Niamey alone, 36 volunteers from the local Branch worked in three communes and 65 districts in the four days from 17 to 20 May. "Red Cross volunteers are best placed to do this work," explained Bagandou Mossi, President of the Niamey Branch. "They work in their own communities and know them well."

Adama Hamani is one of these volunteers. "The mosquito is the only agent that transmits malaria by its bite," she tells five mothers in Gamkalley, Niamey. "Using a mosquito net is the most effective way to protect yourself and your children because mosquitoes are most active at night when you are sleeping."

Mother of two young children, Saolatou Ousseini, is one of more than two million who have benefited from the Red Cross net distribution. She demonstrates what she has learned to Red Cross volunteer, Saleye Garba. "You must hang the net from its four corners using string or cord," she says.

"And you must tuck the net under the mattress to stop the mosquitoes getting in. The children and I sleep under the net every night."

The work of the Niger Red Cross and the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have contributed significantly to reducing malaria infection and helped to save lives in Niger.