Preventing Cholera in Malawi

Cholera training in Malawi
CHSC family medicine doctor Christina Miller frequently offers community health education in Malawian communities on a variety of health topics, including cholera prevention – a serious task in the east African country. 

“Is this going to be a training about cholera, or a training about the Bible?” asked Mr. Nzunga from the front row. It was a fair question, since I had started our day with a reading from John about a woman coming to draw water from a well who asked for the living water after she met Jesus.

“It’s about both,” I begin, Thokozani animatedly translating for me. “God cares about health, God cares about how we love one another, and how we love Him.  The Bible says that we should love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. As a doctor, I believe that being healthy helps us to have more strength to love God. It also helps us to have a stronger mind and a stronger heart. And it helps us to love our neighbor, which is the second greatest commandment.”

I understood that teachings in Malawi usually kept spiritual things separate from academic things which were separate from physical things.  But I wanted this half-day of teaching to bring transformation in the 13 churches and villages they represented. I knew that many churches taught people that true Christians didn’t get sick, and people who trusted in God shouldn’t go to a hospital for treatment. I knew that people were afraid of cholera, and because of all that, people in Malawi were dying from the disease at a rate alarmingly higher than anywhere else in the world.

One pastor relayed a story of how a man was protected from cholera through prayer and eating mangoes.  I was able to affirm the power of prayer, but I also reminded the group that even the Bible talks about doing things to protect a community from infection and to prevent disease. So we talked about hand washing, about purifying water, and about using latrines far from water sources. I also talked about the danger of dehydration with cholera, and how to know if someone was getting so sick that they needed to go to a treatment center right away; those with severe cholera can die within a couple hours.

“But what if the doctor in a hospital gives an injection instead of a medicine and kills the patient?” asked a woman from the back right.  Shocking as it sounded, everyone, including me, was prepared for this question. Recently, a child died suddenly in a cholera treatment unit and the people from his village, convinced that he didn’t actually have cholera but was killed by the doctor, burned the treatment center and the police vehicle which came to help.

And I couldn’t dismiss the accusation that a hospital worker might kill a patient – some months ago, a nurse with mental health issues had come in after his shift and intentionally killed a child through an injection. Healthcare workers I knew and respected had been impacted by both situations.

I expected the question, but the answer still wasn’t easy. I talked about how evil could find its way into a hospital just like it could be present in a village. I reminded the group that God doesn’t guarantee that Christians will be free from pain and danger. I shared that I was a Christian and a doctor, and although I always tried my best to help patients and honor God, I knew that someday something bad, like a patient death or a riot or someone wanting to harm me, was possible as I served here in Malawi. But I reminded the group that we as Christians were called to trust God and to love others.

For me, the impact of a training is reflected in the final minutes, in the final comments and summaries from the participants.  I’ll never forget today’s closing comments from a pastor in the middle, sitting right next to a chief. “Today we have learned how to prevent cholera in our communities and how to care for patients with cholera. We will share this with our churches, so that they will be able to show God’s love to our community during this time.”

This month, please pray for Malawi as it recovers from Cyclone Freddy; pray for protection for its people who have lost homes, food, and access to clean water. Please pray for me and Greg as we seek wisdom for future directions in ministry. And pray that we will use Easter break wisely, finding time to rest and refocus.

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