Remembering the Children I lost…


by chikwe ihekweazu

button The 25th of April just gone was the World Malaria day.

Round the world there was the usual awareness raising campaigns, and even some innovative new ones….as I joined thousands of others in blacking out our images on Facebook.

But I spent most of that day reflecting on my time on a paediatric ward, 12 years ago at the Abia State University Teaching Hospital in Aba, Abia State in South-Eastern Nigeria. These experiences I am sure are shared by any physician that has worked in paediatric ward in Nigeria…

In all these 12 years …the memories have lingered of children…mostly below 5 years brought into the paediatric emergency unit with a history of fever for well over a week, almost paper white with anaemia, in the arms of some desperately poor mother at a loss as to what to do. The medical history is classic….with the onset of fever, she attends different alternative sources of health care ….often a Patent Medicine Dealer, who “mixes” a concoction of medicines. This mixture probably contains some paracetamol (which initially relieves the fever) and some antimalarials (but not in the appropriate dose). The lethal consequence is that there is some temporary relief but the parasites rebuild very quickly and destroys red blood cells…leading to acute anaemia. The heart responds to the stimulus of insufficient haemoglobin (the carrier-cells for oxygen) by pumping more rapidly…and this precipitates the features of heart failure. This is usually the point where the mother gets scared and comes to the hospital…Many times…it was too late

The race would start at this point.
With a haemoglobin level of less than 5, weak, tired,…the one measure that will save that life and buy some time for the antimalarials: blood transfusion. The poor parent who has just paid for “card”, paid a deposit for admission, bought gloves for the clinicians…is now told that he/she has to go to the blood bank and get blood (obviously it has to be paid for). I remember vividly their looks of distress as they often explained that they will now have to run into town to look for any relatives that can lend them some money (this was before the mobile phone phenomenon in Nigeria).

I remember our “Blood Bank”!. The old, squeaky fridges… in a room with 2 wooden tables and chairs. I think of the rarity of our electricity supply. The epileptic existence of “HIV Kits”. The hungry-looking regular blood “donors” milling around outside waiting to be paid to make their 3rd blood donation of the week!

Sometimes the father came back on time, sourced the blood, and with appropriate anti-malarials…the child would improve radically, often within a few hours. The parents will thank us profusely and go home to face their huge dept burden….They were the lucky ones. These days I hear a National Blood Bank service has been launched and the need for blood has also declined with the recent advances in antimalarial chemotherapy especially intravenous artesunate.

Many would not make it…many! Either too late, too poor or a combination. I remember their faces…of the children…and of the mothers…but especially of the fathers. Men would not normally be emotionally explicit in our culture…so it shook me to my foundations seeing these men break down and weep….weep at loss of their children and at weep at failing in their role to protect and nurture them to adulthood.

In the early days of housemanship, one was very emotional too….and ran around to help every parent, often contributing financially. But sadly…and almost inevitably the trauma was “normalised”. The cries from the paediatric wards became a routine. Counselling the parents with “Ndo…, Ji si Ike, …”…became more rhetoric than real….and as usual we took solace in the phrase “O ka Chukwu choro ya” (it was destined to happen)

The frustration of realising that there is so little one can do at the point of the paediatric emergency department was overwhelming. If a parent does not have the knowledge and tools to prevent malaria, if he cannot afford the treatment, if the medicines are fake, if the blood bank has no blood, if the doctors are on strike…what real chance does that child have? What can the father or mother do? Can you imagine the feeling?

12 years ago….I was a fresh houseofficer, full of energy and enthusiasm for the profession…and proud to be called “Doc!”. The paediatric ward brought me face-to-face with the limitations of my recently acquired title. Despite all the children with malaria that died on the wards where I worked…I never quite came to understanding the pain until the past 3 years that I have spent trying to raise my own son…(things not taught in medical school).

On the 25th of April and since….I cannot help but think how we have all failed so many children. We assume that Malaria is a simple illness…and it is indeed. But only simple in the context of a well educated, resourced and organised society, which sadly we are not.

3000 children die from malaria every day world wide and a good many of them are inevitably Nigerian. Do not think of this World Malaria Day in the context of these figures…think of it in the context of your own child, brother, nephew or niece.

Next time you are going home to the village, maybe rather than buying clothes for your relatives or “dashing” them cash…load your boot with bed nets. Teach them how to use it. Yes, it is difficult in the heat (thanks to our ever epileptic power supply) and sometimes cumbersome. But compare that to the alternatives…

But maybe most importantly…join hands in holding our Ministers, and Commisoners of Health accountable.

Ask NOT how many MRI machines VAMED has installed in the Hospital, but how many deaths from malaria they prevented. Let us hold those responsible for “health” accountable in “health terms”.

Picture courtesy of

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead

Chikwe Ihekweazu is an epidemiologist and consultant public health physician. He is the Editor of Nigeria Health Watch, and the Managing Partner of EpiAfric (, which provides expertise in public health research and advisory services, health communication and professional development. He previously held leadership roles at the South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases and the UK's Health Protection Agency. Chikwe has undertaken several short term consultancies for the World Health Organisation, mainly in response to major outbreaks. He is a TED Fellow and co-curator of TEDxEuston.

Discussion6 Comments

  1. ‘The children i lost’ – please don’t send me into depression. There is one particular child who died of tetatnus- too painfull to narrate- that was at the General Hospital Warri. 1988.
    Malaria was a problem (and still is).

    Nice write up

  2. Super article, Chikwe.
    I have seen a few senseless malaria deaths too.
    The mosquito net idea is a brilliant one, Instead of spending money on exccess luggage for gifts that won’t be appreciated anyway.
    Malaria is one of those things that people overlook, unless they see first hand what damage it does to people and communities.

  3. Well written Chikwe!
    Very disheartening. The problem is not only with malaria but most tropical diseases. It’s little wonder we all came out of Nigeria alive or indeed Nigerian citizens still exist. Nawa!! I remember as a physiotherapist in Lagos the endless stream of mothers bringing their babies to our department looking for a ‘cure’ for cerebral palsy. This of course was after they had been here there and everywhere. The history remained the same – poor antenatal and labour in most cases self managed certainly not by choice!
    The question remains what can one do to positively have an effect on our fellow Nigerians health. You’re absolutely correct preventative medicine is the key.

    MumsTheWord – London

  4. i think it is a splendid idea to load ones car with malaria tabs and mosquito nets, but knowing my fellow niger as soon as your back is turned you can be sure that they will sell it off to the next makeshift pharmacy for peanuts or curse you at your back for wishing them to even have malaria. this is said in a lighter mood but also food for thot that as we are trying to wake up the govt’s conscience(that is if they even had any in the first place), the minds of the ave. niger also needs overhauling.
    well done chikwe. lovely site!

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