Fabian Emmenegger is PR and Communications Manager at Save the Children Switzerland and was recently in Malawi for a media trip. In the interview below, he reports on the project he visited and what that experience meant to him personally.
Mr Emmenegger, you were recently in Malawi. What did you do there, and what is Save the Children doing there?
I visited a health project in schools in the Zomba and Machinga districts. The aim of the project is the early detection and treatment of malaria in schoolchildren. In this project, Save the Children educates the teachers in selected schools so that they can recognise malaria symptoms themselves, and diagnose and treat the disease. By carrying out the project in schools, we can directly address the needs of children. They receive a diagnosis within 24 hours and can be given treatment or, depending on their condition, referred to a health centre. They can also better ensure that the children really do go to a health centre, and not just stay at home. Carrying out malaria prevention in schools also benefits children’s education, as it means they can return to school faster following treatment, there is less absence and they miss fewer lessons. So we can kill two mosquitoes with one stone!
Another important aspect of the link between health and education is the fact that, although malaria has been well managed in children under the age of five, there has not been a strong focus on the disease in older children – who also suffer greatly from malaria. So, we can carry out important work by providing support specifically in primary schools.
That sounds like an impressive project. How did you find the conditions in Malawi?
One thing you have to keep in mind is that Malawi is the third poorest country in the world. It really just lacks everything.
What worried me the most – and you can hardly imagine it – was the absolutely scorching heat. The schools are very rudimentary, with little shade, and there are about 40 teachers for 2,500 children. These conditions are almost unconceivable for us – and the room where malaria is treated is so tiny. It really was an eye-opening experience for me.
I was very impressed by the untiring commitment of the Save the Children staff working there. Their conviction and dedication are so impressive. This project has been going for over six years, with countless negotiations with district leaders, tribal leaders, the government, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education – there are so many stakeholders involved and a lot of liaison needed. Despite the huge amount of work required, the staff are still very motivated and have been able to achieve great success. For example, a doctor from the hospital told us that virtually no malaria cases come to him from the school we visited. In another district, the government has begun to finance the medications themselves. This is how the project’s long-term goal can be achieved – that Save the Children withdraws, and the government takes over supervision of the established structures in the whole country. This is very difficult, but it is our overall aim and will mean a lot for the health of these children.
What will you take away from the project?
Well, malaria is endemic in Malawi in all parts of the country and is one of the main causes of death for children there. The fact that this is changing, and that our work directly helps the people affected gave me hope. In the Zomba district, Save the Children is currently paying for all the materials, but this will change. This means that we will be able to focus on training the teachers, which will have a major impact on children’s health. The teachers I met were very motivated and were happy to be able to help the students. I found it incredible to see how we make such a difference for these children. It was an unforgettable experience.
What was your role in this project?
We were there on a media trip with two journalists. I prepared a programme beforehand with Save the Children staff from Malawi, and made sure that the journalists received a big-picture view of the project during the visit. We wanted to tell the story of a child who comes to school, doesn’t feel well, and is then examined, treated and referred to the hospital, so that the readers understand this process.
To what extent has your perspective on malaria changed as a result of this visit?
It’s changed a lot. I’m now much more aware of how omnipresent the issue is. It’s the main cause of death for children: almost everyone here has had malaria, knows someone who has, or has lost family to it. I was not so aware of that before; it's just not so precarious for us. I also find it difficult knowing that I can just take prophylactic medication, but in Malawi so many people die from malaria. Our project is a good start and a great intervention to help change the way we deal with this disease, but it will take a much bigger overhaul of our thinking to really stop this disease in its tracks.