Shouldering Malaria Burden
By Judith Santiago*
In 1974, Guy Kasanka experienced a major turning point in his life when he was hospitalized for malaria near his hometown of Bukama in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). That was when he decided to become a doctor. After receiving special medical care from hospital staff and witnessing firsthand the nurses’ attentiveness, Kasanka felt compelled to help others recover from malaria just as he had. The hospitality he received as a young man was a defining moment that seemed to lift the burden of malaria that had afflicted him time and time again.
“Every time I had a problem like a fever or headache, I received great care,” emphasized Kasanka. “The hospital was very organized at that time… nurses were constantly watching out for patients’ needs. I was given malaria medication, and every day the nurses were changing the linens,” he recalled.
Called to Serve
While none of his family members held medical positions—his father worked as a primary school teacher and his mother ran the home and the family’s farm—Kasanka became determined to medically help others. He witnessed malaria’s deadly sting over and over again, as many in his own family and community suffered from the disease. His hospital experience became a profound opportunity to answer the call of God in his life to become a doctor and fight against the diseases of poverty that plagued his community.
Kasanka pursued his call when he finished secondary school. In 1987, he attended the University of Lubumbashi to study medicine, working several small jobs to cover his tuition and school fees.
“I worked for the church that my parents attended and whenever we went on vacation, I would buy and sell fish, cassava, maize, and other vegetables to help pay for my education,” Kasanka said.
During his third year of medical school, Kasanka’s father passed away, and Kasanka took on new family responsibilities in addition to his commitment to his studies and work. Born the second of eight children, he was left to care for his uncle, mother, grandfather, and siblings. Thankfully, his brother helped with school costs, and in 1996, Kasanka earned his Doctor of Medicine degree.
“Malaria is the first reason people come for a medical consultation in our country,” said Dr. Kasanka, whose roles now include surgeon, chair of the Joint Health Board of DRC, medical coordinator of North Katanga Episcopal area, and missionary for the General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church. Until recently, Kasanka also was the director of Shungu Memorial Health Center. While he gave up that administrative post to attend to his other responsibilities, he continues to work as a doctor at the center.
“Almost everyone in a family in DRC suffers from malaria at least once or twice a year. At the time I was ill with it, everyone in my family was suffering from malaria,” Kasanka said.
Fighting Against Diseases of Poverty
In addition to malaria, most of the patients that come to see Dr. Kasanka suffer from other chronic diseases like severe diarrhea, respiratory issues like tuberculosis, and typhoid fever.
As the medical coordinator of North Katanga Episcopal area, Kasanka works on many levels to fight against these diseases. He writes, submits, and tracks grant proposals in support of the health facilities he supervises for The United Methodist Church. At Shungu Memorial Health Center, he tirelessly works as a generalist, surgeon, and teacher, educating medical students at the United Methodist University nursing school.
In Kamina, Kasanka works closely with Shungu’s community health workers who were trained in malaria prevention, and are part of the Ministry with the Poor program of The United Methodist Church. Through this program, the church is working through several sustainable programs that link UMCOR disciplines of health, agriculture, nutrition, and water and sanitation to help people in Katanga province get out of poverty and improve their overall health and lives.
“The community health workers identify people with malaria or cholera, and help them by cleaning their environment. They remove stagnant water from their homes to help reduce mosquito breeding environments,” said Kasanka. “They educate others and help those suffering from tuberculosis by leading them to the Shungu health center. We are very connected to them.”
Kasanka recalled a time, after a rainy season in 2009, when there was plenty of stagnant water around to invite mosquito populations. The community health workers organized to clean the Kamina River and several other affected areas. Following that massive cleanup, there was about a 30 percent decrease in malaria cases at Shungu, according to Kasanka.
“Dr. Kasanka has proved time and again to be a leader and advocate for the people he serves in North Katanga,” said Shannon Trilli, director of the Imagine No Malaria program of The United Methodist Church.
“The health board of DRC was one of the first to join the Global Health Initiative and Imagine No Malaria. Dr. Kasanka set a level of excellence and impact that inspire and challenge other health leaders like him to respond in kind, on behalf of the sick and vulnerable. I have learned by watching Dr. Kasanka’s example, and respect him immensely,” continued Trilli.
HIV and AIDS
In addition to malaria, HIV/AIDS is another major health concern affecting populations in DRC. After attending an AIDS workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2002, Kasanka became especially interested in the combatting AIDS back home. According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 people in DRC live with HIV/AIDS. In a step to help communities cope with their newly learned status, Kansanka founded a community-based association that is providing HIV counseling in both schools and churches.
“During the 1996-1997 war, there was a huge increase in HIV cases,” said Kasanka.
He referenced the increased presence of foreign military—six armies from central and sub-Saharan countries that fought in DRC and contributed to the spread of the HIV virus. Many women and young girls were raped during the conflict. Thanks to grant support from the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund to the North Katanga United Methodist Episcopal Area, community health workers at United Methodist hospitals learned about HIV/AIDS transmission, treatment, prevention and counseling.
“Many people were interested (in learning about HIV), but they needed a safe place to be tested for the disease and to learn their status,” said Kasanka, who later opened a voluntary testing center where he said there were “many positive cases.”
With a heart for change for his beloved country and eager to impact the lives and health of future generations, Dr. Kasanka is a quiet warrior, bravely advancing an army of health staff toward improved health, empowerment, and genuine health care for patients to relieve them of the physical burden caused by diseases such as malaria.
Read Dr. Kasanka’s full bio here and support his missionary work directly by giving to Advance #15163Z. You can also support the fight against malaria through the United Methodist Church Imagine No Malaria, UMCOR Advance #3021190.
*Santiago is the Media Communications Associate for UMCOR. She recently traveled to Democratic Republic of Congo and spoke with Kasanka there.