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One net at a time

HealthNet staff member Jenny Rodrigues talks with AVID volunteer George Darroch.

One bed, one mosquito net and one mother at a time, HealthNet Timor-Leste is helping remote communities to stay healthy and malaria-free. Australian volunteers George Darroch and Karen Champlin are playing their part.

Malaria is a risk to almost the entire population of Timor-Leste. Fortunately infection rates and malaria-related deaths are in decline, due to targeted public health campaigns from Timorese and international agencies.

"People have a strong idea that fever is connected with malaria…but they're not so aware of the specific signs and symptoms," says George Darroch. "And while children and pregnant women are readily understood to be vulnerable, adult malaria is not conceived in the same way. Often members of the community perceive the problem as less-serious or non-serious."

George and his colleague Karen Champlin are volunteering with HealthNet Timor-Leste through the Australian Volunteers for International Development program, an AusAID initiative.

HealthNet works with the Timorese Ministry of Health to run monthly clinics in remote communities providing treatment of infectious diseases, family planning, nutrition, maternal and child health. Its malaria prevention program targets communities in Dili, Manatuto and Lospalos, helping people to understand how the disease is transmitted, the symptoms and where to get treatment. It also distributes insecticide-treated mosquito nets to pregnant women and children.

While George works on HealthNet's malaria program, registered nurse Karen focuses on improving nutrition for new mothers and babies. Through her interaction with HealthNet staff and volunteers, she has identified many issues that affect maternal and child health.

"A new mother is influenced strongly by the beliefs of the older women in the community," Karen says. "Her mother and grandmother may tell her that the baby should not receive the 'yellow milk' colostrum, as it is believed to be bad." However, colostrum contains many antibodies that children need in their first few months.

Behaviour change programs require regular monitoring and reporting to highlight the progress that is being made and identify ways to improve information and its delivery. This is where the Australian volunteers come in: George has helped re-design the malaria program's home visit survey to reduce the resources and travel involved, while Karen has been working on a monitoring plan, case study and interview templates, as well as a learning needs analysis for field staff.

As HealthNet Director Fransisco de Veira explains: "It is very good when we review our programs and have more discussions about how to change the community members' behaviour. Change communication is of key importance in developing messages for the community that will get them to come to clinics and teach them that it is very important for their entire family to eat good food.

"I hope that in the future we will have changed the community and how it accesses health services."


Photo: Australian Red Cross/Conor Ashleigh