The threat of COVID-19 is at the top of everyone’s mind these days. Mothers in the U.S. are armed with face masks and hand sanitizer, keeping their children safely isolated in the home. Yet, as all mothers know, the responsibilities of motherhood do not pause for anything — not even a global pandemic. Our children still need their meals prepared and served. They need bandages applied to scraped knees. They need to be reassured that they are safe. And for pregnant women, newborn babies will still make an entrance on their own schedule.

For many mothers around the globe, the threat of this deadly disease harming their children is not something new — it’s something additional. On a normal day, contaminated drinking water could lead to diarrhea that results in severe dehydration in their child. On a normal night, a mosquito could bite their baby and inject life-threatening malaria. In a normal week, a mother might only manage to scrape together enough food to provide her children with one meager meal per day.

While hospitals across our country have called off non-emergency procedures in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, Medical Teams has just expanded our programs to serve mothers and children in Tanzania. Because for mothers living in refugee camps there, the medical care they seek for their children is almost always an emergency. In the midst of preparing for the threat of COVID-19, our staff our courageously stepping up to meet the urgent needs of mothers and children.

This is why.

Malnutrition and Malaria — A Deadly Combination

The Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in western Tanzania is one of the places where we’ve expanded our services for mothers and children this month. It’s also home to Deus Irishura. Last spring, when he was 20 months old, Deus spent weeks admitted to our malnutrition intensive care ward. His mother was six months pregnant at the time, and struggled to provide him with the adequate nutrition he needed to grow at a healthy rate for his age. Then he contracted malaria. By the time Deus arrived at our clinic, his high fever and loss of body mass left him with barely enough energy to cry.

malnutrition tanzania baby
Younger than 2 years old, Deus suffered from a life-threatening combination: malaria and malnutrition.

Medical Teams International supports the main hospital in Nyarugusu with medicines, medical equipment and staff training. A primary goal of the program is to encourage mothers to come for regular check-ups during their pregnancies and for the first several years of their child’s life. Consistent and thorough care is key to preventing, identifying and treating life-threatening malnutrition and malaria.

Thankfully, Deus’s mother wants the best for her children, and visited the hospital each month for the Growth Monitoring Clinic, where every child from newborns to 5-year-olds are weighed, measured, vaccinated and monitored for signs of illness. When our staff saw Deus, they knew he needed more intensive care.

malnutrition malaria child
Deus receives daily check-ups from a Medical Teams doctor.

Specially-trained nurses and doctors are on-site to care for malnourished children around the clock at the Nyarugusu hospital. But the mothers themselves are the most vital caregivers. They stay physically connected to their children at every moment, watching for signs of distress, encouraging them to drink fortified milk, and monitoring the IVs that transfer vital medicines to fight malaria.

As the doctor performs a daily check-up on Deus, he’s optimistic they are winning the fight against malaria. And he has confidence, knowing that most of the children admitted to this malnutrition clinic make a full recovery.

Hope for Helena

3-year-old Helena had been a healthy toddler before she fell ill, exploring her neighborhood and playing with other children. Two months of persistent diarrhea and fever took its toll on her young body, though, and eventually she became so malnourished she could no longer walk. Her weight plummeted dangerously low, to 13 pounds.

malnutrition girl fever
Severely malnourished and plagued by fever, Helena receives life-saving treatment.

One month into her stay at the malnutrition ward, Helena’s condition has improved. One of the most encouraging signs is that she is able to eat the therapeutic foods offered to her — sometimes, severely malnourished children can only take IV nutrition. Regular feeding of highly-fortified porridge and milk is a vital role that mother’s play while their children recover at the hospital. And it has a long-term impact on the lives of all their children. As they see their babies recover, mothers gain confidence that they have the skills and tools to keep them well nourished once they return home.

girl malnutrition doctor
Helena’s mother watches her daughter attentively as the doctor tracks the girl’s progress toward recovery.

It’s hard to go through motherhood alone, and the Nyarugusu hospital offers mothers a safe place to come together and find encouragement, education and support. There is an unmistakable sense of family in this malnutrition ward, where mothers and babies sleep side-by-side in a large room lined with beds and mosquito nets. Young refugee mothers — many of whom lost members of their families as they fled from violence in their home countries — gain new sisters through the common bond of motherhood. They support new arrivals who are afraid for their babies’ lives, and they cheer when children recover and are able to go home.

Every day, mothers carry their sick and malnourished children through the doors of our hospitals in Tanzania. And every day, our staff discharge healthy children who are able to return home. COVID-19 doesn’t change that. In the midst of a global pandemic that has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives, many children are battling constant threats to their health that have been present long before the coronavirus and will remain long after this season passes. We’ll be there too — giving refugee mothers crucial prenatal care, comforting and caring for them through delivery, and providing them with the knowledge and resources to keep their babies healthy for many years to come.

You can help care for mothers and children in Tanzania and other places where we work with a gift today.