Mosquito nets may not seem like powerful tools, but they are absolutely crucial in preventing the spread of malaria in places with high incident rates. More importantly, they hold the potential to keep mothers like Suzanne from experiencing tragic loss. 

Suzanne Kaoto has lived in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in western Tanzania since its opening in 1996. She was only 11 years old at the time her family was forced to flee their home country, after they were accused of hiding dangerous Rwandese militants — an accusation that will stick with them for generations. “I’m not even thinking of going back to Congo,” Suzanne says, “Yes, life is tough here, but it’s better than going back.”

Suzanne, a refugee in the Nyarugusu camp, standing in the doorway of her home in Tanzania
Suzanne remembers very little of her life in the Congo.

Now 33 years old, Suzanne has already given birth to 8 children. Every one of them has suffered from malaria.

“Even me,” she says, “if you prick my finger for a test right now, you will find malaria.”

Their mud-brick home in the refugee camp is surrounded by swampy fields — a breeding ground for the deadly mosquitoes that swarm them every night. They do what they can to sleep under mosquito nets, but the tennis ball-sized holes ripped throughout the netting give the mosquitoes easy access to Suzanne and her children. And they struck her 5-month-old son, Rwamba Isaya, hardest of all.

Three of Suzanne’s children, sitting underneath their damaged mosquito nets that are suppose to protect them from malaria
Massive holes in their mosquito nets provide the children with little protection from malaria.

Rwamba was sick for almost a month with a high fever and diarrhea. Suzanne took him to the nearest health clinic and received some medicine to treat the malaria. It didn’t work, so she returned a second time and was told to wait it out, the medicine should work. It still didn’t. She returned a third time after Rwamba also began suffering from a cough and anemia. At the clinic, the baby started convulsing with illness. Even though the doctors administered medicines through a drip, they discovered that the malaria had reached his brain. Soon, tragically, Rwamba was gone.

Describing the scene at the clinic that day, Suzanne leapt from her chair and shook her hands in the air. She recalled that when she realized her baby was dying, she grabbed the staff, yelling “Doctor! Doctor!” She wanted to fight. Instead, she returned home with empty arms. In her grief, she burned all of Rwamba’s little clothes. It was too painful for her to see them and remember the son she’d lost.

Suzanne, looking down at a blanket that once was her 5-month-olds, who had died from malaria
Suzanne remembers Rwamba, the 5-month-old son she lost to malaria. The only thing she has left of him is a blanket and the medicines he never had a chance to finish.

A year and a half later, Suzanne has a new way to remember her beloved son — she gave birth again and named the baby Rwamba Isaya in memory of his older brother. While she delights in her young son, she admits, “I have reason to worry.” Every member of her family has had malaria, and they still don’t have enough mosquito nets.

“If you stay the night, you’ll see how many mosquitoes bite.”

But there’s a big change in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp since that tragic day when Suzanne buried her young child — Medical Teams International is now working in Tanzania and now oversees programs dedicated to keeping children in the camps safe from malaria.

Suzanne kissing her baby Rwamba, who’s named after her other child that died from malaria
Baby Rwamba is named after his older brother who died from malaria.

Kiza Bilubi Ragabu is a refugee from the Congo himself, and he’s also a health information team supervisor, volunteering with Medical Teams International to improve the health of his refugee community. He visits Suzanne’s family each day and has built a caring relationship with them. Kiza says that the children often have fevers, and when they do, he accompanies them to the nearby clinic for treatment. Health information team volunteers are a vital resource in preventing and treating life-threatening illnesses in the refugee camp. Teaching families about a range of health issues — from vaccinations to hygiene to danger signs in pregnancies — these volunteers are often the key link between a refugee and life-saving medical care.

Health information team volunteers help assure that no one falls through the cracks, that children infected by malaria receive fast and thorough treatment. At the clinics, trained nurses are now equipped with thermometers and rapid diagnostic tests to diagnose malaria as soon as young patients arrive. Doctors are ready with medicines to treat a range of illnesses, including malaria.

Medical Teams is moving quickly to expand the life-saving work taking place in the refugee camps of Tanzania. The first shipment of new, sturdy mosquito nets was recently distributed to families with young children to help keep them safe from malaria. Medicines and supplies for diagnosis and treatment are in high demand and, thanks to the support of faithful donors, we are working tirelessly to keep shelves stocked and the local staff equipped. Your support helps assure that mothers like Suzanne can finally have confidence that their babies will receive the life-saving treatment they need to survive preventable illnesses like malaria.

Portions of this post have been updated. It was originally published in September 2019.