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Feature: Grief knocks on every door in rural west Oromia as malaria continues to claim lives

Health workers sprayed anti-malaria chemicals in Begi district, West Wollega zone in September 2023 (Photo: Begi Communication Office/Facebook)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Addis Abeba – In a remote rural village in Kondala district of West Wollega zone, Oromia region, lives Tolasa, who recently faced a devastating loss of his 14-year-old son, Gemechis, due to an active malaria outbreak in the area. “My son exhibited symptoms of fatigue, diarrhea, bouts of fever, chills, and flu from 14 October 2023, until his passing on 05 November 2023,” Tolosa, who asked to be identified by his first name only, told Addis Standard.

The lack of health services and access to essential medication in his vicinity, which has been ravaged by the conflict between Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and government forces, made it difficult for Tolosa’s family to seek proper treatment for Gemechis. Two days after the death of Gemechis, who was a bright and promising seventh-grade student, grief struck the family again when a 9-year-old Abdi, Tolasa’s nephew,  tragically fell victim to the outbreak.

“During the period from 20 October 2023, until his passing on 07 November 2023, my brother’s son suffered from a range of debilitating symptoms. These included fatigue, dizziness, abdominal pain, muscle aches, vomiting, joint pain, fever, and headaches,” Tolasa said recalling the suffering both his son and his nephew, a fifth grader, endured in the absence of medical treatment.

In the remote village many families like Tolasa’s, have lost their loved ones to the raging outbreak. The rural area, according to Tolasa, has also been grappling with drought and subsequent food shortages which significantly undermined the local communities’ resilience against the disease. Underlying the challenges is a severe security problem resulting from the ongoing conflict between the OLA and the government forces which caused the destruction of local health facilities and made access to external support even more difficult. 

In the face of these hardships, “my family and our neighbors continue to strive for a better future. We long for improved access to healthcare, essential medications, and relief from the effects of drought and food shortages,” said Tolosa.

With no access to proper medical treatment, we desperately tried to treat her traditionally, but we couldn’t help her live longer than a month.”

Tamane Tadesse, a husband who lost his pregnant wife to malaria

In Gunfi village of neighboring Begi district, Tamane Tadesse mourns the loss of his wife Ayantu Abebe, 25, and his unborn kid. Ayantu was only 45-days pregnant when she succumbed to malaria after battling with the disease for a month without proper medication. “Ayantu was sick since 03 September, and unfortunately died after 27 days. With no access to proper medical treatment, we desperately tried to treat her traditionally, but we couldn’t help her live longer than a month,” Tamene told Addis Standard.

Despite Ayantu being in her early stage of pregnancy, Tamene had already been eagerly anticipating the arrival of their first child, and her passing has left not only him but the entire villagers devastated.

The malaria outbreak in conflict-ravaged Western Oromia, particularly in the West Wollega and Kellem Wollega zones, has had a devastating impact on the local population, resulting in significant harm to human lives, including children, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease. The combination of ongoing conflict, drought and the malaria outbreak has created a humanitarian catastrophe, with many people suffering without assistance. 

In Kellem Wollega’s Hawa Galan district, Idosa Tesfaye lost his father Tesfaye Hambisa to the outbreak. The death of Tesfaye, who was a respected elder in his village, Machara, due to lack of malaria tablets, has shocked the local community. The disruption of provision of health services and the supply of malaria tablets due to the insecurity in the area left many households like Idosa’s in sorrow in the Hawa Galan, one of the severely hit districts in Western Oromia.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its October situation report that since January 2023, a total of 774,519 malaria cases with 180 deaths were reported in 117 districts and 7 major towns in the Oromia region, with over 70 percent of the cases reported from Western Oromia, specifically from West Wollega and Kellem Wollega zones.

In October, a physician working in the West Wollega zone’s health office, who asked not to be named, told Addis Standard that as of 12 October, a total of 222,268 people were tested and a staggering 128,150 (57.65%) were found to be malaria positive with 45 deaths registered within health facilities in the zone.

Alemayehu Kefeni, a medical doctor who recently traveled to Kellem Wollega and West Wollega zones as a member of an emergency response team dispatched by the Oromia Physicians Association (OPA) told Addis Standard that the mortality rate in the community is alarmingly higher than what has been reported.

“Many people in the rural villages have died due to malaria without receiving proper treatment. There is a significant gap between what has been reported and the actual severity of the issue, and immediate action is required to prevent further loss of life,” Dr. Alemayehy said.

Moreover, the lack of functioning health posts and constrained access to necessary medications has led to a surge in malaria cases, the doctor stressed, adding that the insecurity and drought induced shortages of food and other basic necessities has further compounded the health crisis, leading to widespread hunger and malnutrition.

He warned that without immediate intervention, the situation will continue to deteriorate, leading to further loss of life and suffering of civilians. “We are deeply concerned about the impact of conflict on the health and well-being of communities in these areas. Efforts should be made to ensure uninterrupted supply of essential medical supplies as well as the restoration of healthcare services in these areas,” he noted. 

He further called on the international community to support these efforts and advocate for the restoration of essential services in the war-torn areas in addition to scaling up emergency relief responses. AS

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