Malaria, Ebola, and Saving Lives: Part 1 – The Muso Pilot

by Quentin Wodon

Two days ago, Mali launched a national strategic plan to scale up Community Health Workers in every region of the country. This initiative has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives. It could also significantly reduce risks related to Ebola.

This post is part of series of three that tells the remarkable story of how this happened, thanks in part to Rotary-funded Muso, a NGO that has been working closely with the Malian Ministry of Health for several years.

Muso baby

Roll back a few years and meet Djeneba, a young girl living in Yirimadjo in Mali (West Africa), one of the poorest countries in the world. Today she goes to school but her life was once threatened. At the time her family was living on less than a dollar a day. Djeneba started getting high fevers but her parents did not have enough money to pay for care. They tried to break the fever by bathing her in herbal remedies and buying unregulated pharmaceuticals but the fevers persisted and became increasingly severe.

Fortunately Djeneba lived in a community were Muso was being implemented. Families could receive healthcare for free or at very low cost. Sira, one of the community health workers trained by Muso became aware of Djeneba’s situation after one particularly nasty fever, and wrapped Djeneba in wet towels to stabilize her fever. She sent Djeneba by ambulance to a large hospital in the capital city of Bamako where she received comprehensive treatment. During the ambulance ride Djeneba lost consciousness and she was diagnosed with advanced cerebral malaria. During the first 10 days of her stay in the hospital she was in a coma. But after three weeks in the hospital and lifesaving medication she was released happy and healthy.

When Djeneba returned home Sira taught her parents how and when Djeneba should take her medication at home. Everyday Sira visited Djeneba to care for her. Two weeks after her recovery, Sira saw Djeneba with a school backpack entering her house. Sira’s diligence and attention towards Djeneba saved her life and got her back on track in school.

Djeneba’s story is not unique. Half of the world’s population is vulnerable to malaria. Every year, 665,000 people die from malaria episodes. Many are children under five. Muso is on the frontlines of providing timely, proactive health care to poor communities and hard-to-reach populations so that the lives of children like Djeneba can be saved.

“Most children killed from malaria die within 48 hours of the moment they say ‘Mommy I’m sick.’ We already have the tools to avert nearly all deaths from malaria, but they are not reaching the children who need them early enough. Our idea is simple but powerful: if we reach every child early, we could avert nearly all child deaths from malaria. But to reach every child early in the world’s poorest communities is a big challenge. To make this happen, we had to challenge the conventions of traditional health systems. Traditional health systems are reactive. Medical providers like me are expected to wait for patients to come to us. Muso’s health system takes a proactive approach, deploying Community Health Workers to search actively for patients door to door”, says Dr. Ari Johnson, co-founder of Muso.

As explained in a previous post on this blog, Muso works in communities through a four-step approach. The first step consists of mobilizing the existing health care delivery system. This includes selecting, training, employing and supervising local individuals who go door-to-door and identify children sick with malaria and other illnesses. These community health workers diagnose malaria in the household and treat simple cases. The second step consists of removing barriers that prevent people from accessing care when needed. By eliminating point-of-care user fees, Muso ensures that even the poorest can benefit from life-saving comprehensive and universal care, whether at home, in community health centers, or in referral hospitals. The third step consists of creating rapid referral networks by training communities in identifying health risks, prioritizing rapid treatment, and navigating the health system. The final step consists of clinical capacity building. As Muso systematically removes access barriers to achieve universal health coverage, it reinforces the ability of the public sector to provide quality care to its patients.

How do we know that Muso has been successful? A recent study published in the peer- reviewed journal PLoS ONE is very encouraging. The study documents a ten-fold difference in the rate of child mortality in the three years after the launch of Muso. At baseline the rate of child mortality was 15.5 percent. After three years, it dropped to 1.7 percent. During the same period, there was a ten-fold increase in the number of patient home and clinic visits in the catchment area, a doubling of the rate of rapid access to malaria treatment for children in need, and a reduction by one third in the share of children becoming sick with fever.

The Muso team has been interviewed among others by the BBC, ABC News, Reuters, and the New York Times and the project recently received two global awards. First, the 2013 GSK Global Healthcare Innovation Award recognized the project as one of five effective new models for better chances of child survival. In addition the Caplow Children’s Prize named the project one of eight finalists for its global award that also identifies some of the world’s high-impact new models for saving children’s lives.

Part of this story was already told on this blog. But the announcement two days ago of the adoption of a national strategic plan in Mali to scale up Community Health Workers is a major new development that warrants telling this story again in more details. The story continues to have relevance for malaria and child mortality, but it also now has relevance in the context of the Ebola epidemic. The relevance of the Muso model for Ebola and the role that Rotary played in supporting Muso will be discussed next.

5 thoughts on “Malaria, Ebola, and Saving Lives: Part 1 – The Muso Pilot

  1. Why treat Malaria rather than preventing the children from getting it in the first place by giving nets and educating them the people how to use them properly, surely this is a far better way for health workers to spend their time than going door to door seeking sickly children! Be proactive rather than reactive. Scaling up the number of available Community Health Workers is certainly an initiative that must be supported in Mali and throughout the rest of the continent!

    • Peter – You are right – we need to provide bednets and educate. Muso actually does all that, and very well. In the third post of the series, I was going to mention it. At the same time, as you probably know, bed nets are often not enough – which is why the Muso model is so exciting, because it is comprehensive, and achieving great results at limited cost. And they are scaling up with the Ministry of Health, as I will explain in the second post in the series tonight.

  2. A fascinating story. And an example of what a proactive model of basic health service delivery can accomplish in the environment of poor service and barriers to delivery. I wonder if something like this existed in Liberia perhaps the Ebola outbreak could have been less catastrophic. There seem to be important lessons here for scaling up such interventions in many poor countries.

    • Thanks Zeljko. You ask whether such models exist in Liberia and Sierra Leone. They do to some extent, and several stories on the web document the role of community health workers in the fight against Ebola right now. What is perhaps unique with Muso is the magnitude of the imapct they achieved in their catchment area and how they throught from the start about 1) research to measure impacts; and 2) technical advise and collaboration with the Ministry of Health to achieve scaling-up. This is what I will explain that in the second post on this story tonight.

  3. If Nigeria managed to fight Ebola, the all is possible in Africa. Its commitment needed. I am impressed that you are fighting Malaria on both fronts, treatment and prevention. This is a ray of hope for Africa.

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