New health program in Congo hopes to improve maternal, infant mortality rates

A PC(USA) mission letter from Democratic Republic of Congo

July 30, 2013

KINSHASA, Congo

Every hour in Congo 2 women die in childbirth. 17 percent of these maternal deaths are adolescents. Every hour in Congo 29 children under 1 year of age die. 46 percent of those infants are newborns. 

When Dr. Marie Claude Mbuyi gave those statistics in a meeting I attended recently, my eyes welled up with tears.  Behind every number is someone’s child, someone’s mother, someone’s wife or sister.

Over the past 10 years maternal deaths have dropped from 1,289 to 549 per 100,000 live births. Child mortality has dropped from 126 to 97 per 1,000 live births. The health statistics in Congo have improved in recent years, but we still have a long way to go. 

Dr. Marie Claude’s presentation on maternal and child health reminded me why Larry has spent 25 years of his life working alongside Congolese nationals to help strengthen the health care system of Congo and build up the capacity of health professionals to deliver health care.

The meeting I attended was the launch of the Access to Primary Health Care Project (ASSP),  funded by DFID, the development branch of the British government.  Their desire is to see a significant reduction in maternal and child morbidity and mortality in Congo by increasing utilization, quality and access to health services. 

DFID has committed $282 million over the next five years to help make that a reality. It is the largest amount of funding that Congo has ever received for a health project.  IMA World Health — Interchurch Medical Assistance, the organization Larry is seconded to by the PC(USA) — is the lead organization for the ASSP project. 

The  program will roll out in 56 health zones in five provinces, serving a population of more than 8 million people, giving a comprehensive array of assistance, from community-level health programs, to primary care at health centers, to tertiary care at hospitals. 260 new health centers and 3 new hospitals will be built.  Health care cost to patients will be reduced by 70 percent. Access to clean water will be increased from 7 percent to 35 percent coverage. The national systems for essential medicines, health information and health workforce management will be strengthened and made functional. The project will move from an investment phase, to a development phase, and into a sustainability phase so that it will have a permanent impact on the Congo health system.  

As Chief of Party for the ASSP project, Larry has significant work ahead of him to get this project off the ground and to pilot it. He is blessed with an excellent team to work with ― the best people he has worked with for the last 25 years have left what they were doing to come work on this project together.

One member of the team is Dr. Bernard Ngoy.  Bernard did his medical residency at IMCK hospital at Tshikaji and from there went to the Presbyterian hospital at Bulape. Larry first met Bernard at Bulape during the Sanru program, a previous rural health program. Bernard was the head doctor of the health zone at that time. 

Larry saw he was an innovative and good manager and wanted to help Bernard get his master’s in public health from the University in Kinshasa. At that time there were no more funds available for training in public health, so Larry raised funds to cover his tuition. After his studies Bernard became a program manager for the AXxes project, another earlier health program. Today Bernard is the technical director for the ASSP/DFID project in Congo. It is a real joy for Larry to be working with Bernard. 

The scope of the ASSP project is daunting. There are a lot of facets of health care that need to come together for effective change to occur: transfer of skills and knowledge, maintenance and supply chains of equipment and medicines, management and information systems, integrity, good management, good governance. Those of you have seen a map of Congo’s paved roads (or lack thereof) will understand some of the logistical challenges.  Many of these health zones are in extremely remote areas of Congo with underserved populations. 

Please pray for the safety of the local IMA staff, the implementing partners, the technical partners and the local health professionals involved in this project as they travel and work under difficult circumstances. Pray also for good communication and collaboration between these various groups and the Ministry of Health. Pray for wisdom for Larry and the local IMA team, that they would make good decisions and lead well.  

My prayer is that five years from now we can give you a much better report on maternal and child health in the health zones where this project has been implemented.

Thank you for your prayers, which sustain us, and for your financial support, which enables us to be here in Congo. Your engagement with Presbyterian missions in Congo is helping to bring health care to many, many people. Larry and I invite you to consider prayerfully how you might continue to partner with us over these crucial coming years through your prayers, correspondence, and financial gifts.

Larry and Inge Sthreshley have been under appointment as mission co-workers since 1987. Larry is director of Project AXxes, a large rural health organization that builds and maintains a health infrastructure for rural Congo.

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