Eliminating a killer in the DRC

December 15, 2017 by Guy Bokongo

After the passing of his wife from the disease, Francois Muambu Ifulu advocates for the elimination of HAT in the DRC. Photo: PATH/Guy Bokongo.

After the passing of his wife from the disease, Francois Muambu Ifulu advocates for the elimination of HAT in the DRC. Photo: PATH/Guy Bokongo.

Advocacy champions fight to rid the country of African sleeping sickness.

In Kwango Province, in the western part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Francois Muambu Ifulu has a reputation as a fighter.

The battle he wages is against African sleeping sickness—also known as human African trypanosomiasis (HAT)—one of the world’s least known, yet most devastating diseases. Mr. Ifulu’s fight is in honor of his wife, Colette Nzumbu, who lost her life in 2009 to the illness. When his wife fell ill, doctors were unable to quickly diagnose the disease until it had already reached its final stage, and she died. Today, Mr. Ifulu is working to prevent HAT from taking the lives of other innocent victims.

I met Mr. Ifulu in 2016, during a PATH field visit with the PLNTHA, the DRC Ministry of Health’s division for neglected tropical diseases. As the provincial deputy of Kwango and president of the Provincial National Assembly, Mr. Ifulu is a powerful man. He has chosen to use his power to champion the health of the DRC’s most vulnerable citizens. In 2011, Mr. Ifulu established a foundation to help combat HAT and to encourage his policymaker colleagues in Kinshasa to prioritize the issue on the national level. When we met, he explained his passion for fighting against HAT by mobilizing communities and local authorities. His goal is to see the effort implemented on a national scale through the Ministry of Health.

Sleeping sickness is one of the most neglected—and fatal—diseases in the world. Nearly 85 percent of cases occur in the DRC, but efforts over the last decade reduced the number to fewer than 2,500 in 2015. Now, thanks to a global pledge to control, eliminate, or eradicate 17 neglected tropical diseases by 2020, HAT’s days may be numbered.

Two health workers standing behding a woman and her husband, who sit on hospital beds.

Octavie Alingite (66) on her first day of intravenous treatment for HAT at Roi Baudouin Hospital in the DRC. Photo: PATH/Guy Bokongo.

Working with PATH and other champions like Mr. Ifulu, the DRC’s Ministry of Health is in advanced stages of developing a national strategic plan to eliminate the disease entirely. I am pleased to work on behalf of PATH on this plan alongside colleagues from the ministry and a consortium of partners, including the Belgian Institute of Tropical Medicine, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, World Health Organization, and FIND.

The pivotal element of the strategy is elimination of the disease in the DRC, but that requires treating people with the disease during the first phase, when it’s much harder to diagnose. This strategy will ensure that interventions are funded and prioritized at the national and local levels, and that diagnostics, control methods, and new drugs—when and if they become available—are incorporated into governing policy documents so they can be rolled out to at-risk areas.

Hand pointing to an illustration and text in English, French, and Portuguese.

The National Programme Against Sleeping Sickness uses illustrated flipcharts to educate patients about HAT. Photo: PATH/Georgina Goodwin.

Given the many competing priorities facing our country, making HAT a national priority has required continued advocacy. As advocates, our work is often behind the scenes. We are constantly holding meetings and briefings with officials, regularly responding to requests for more information, and always trying to keep the conversation—both public and private—focused on the consequences of inaction, which can be measured in lives lost needlessly to a preventable disease.

Recently, the government has approved an annual national recognition day for HAT, a sign that our voices are being heard. Combined with the approval and development of the countrywide strategic plan, I believe that we are making progress. With constant vigilance and strong advocacy voices—like that of Mr. Ifulu—we can work together to eliminate HAT in the DRC.