"I will stay here until she gets better," said Rebecca Achol Atak while sitting next to her granddaughter’s bed in Aweil State Hospital. Atong had suffered from severe fever and vomiting before traveling two days on foot with her grandmother to seek medical help.
When she finally made it to the hospital, its medical staff did everything they could to help her. Unfortunately, it was too late. Atong’s condition kept deteriorating and she died less than 24 hours after admission. She was eight years old. Cause of death: cerebral malaria.
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In South Sudan, Atong’s tragic story is far from unique. Malaria is the leading cause of death within the country and according to latest available data a total of 4,064,662 cases were confirmed there in 2019. More than 4,800 people are known to have died from the disease during the same year, and children under five years old are the most at risk. Yet these numbers might in fact underestimate the true severity of the crisis.
"Most children are dying in their homes and villages," says Bowa Malou Wol, an MSF nurse working in Aweil State Hospital. "They never make it to hospitals that are far away. And we don’t actually know how many of these children there are."
This is particularly striking given the fact that the existing healthcare infrastructure already operates under immense pressure. The MSF-supported Aweil State Hospital is a case in point. It is the only facility currently providing comprehensive health services to an estimated 1.2 million people in Northern Bahr el Ghazal State.
Malaria is transmitted throughout the year but it peaks during the rainy season from about July to November. In these months, thousands of children suffer from malaria across the region and must be promptly tested and treated with antimalarial medications to reduce the risk of developing severe malaria, which can be fatal or cause serious complications.
Those who develop severe malaria require urgent hospital care—putting an enormous strain on Aweil State Hospital.