Burn Relief in Malawi

BWH’s Jennifer Wall, PA-C, (at left) operates on a young burn patient with members of the surgical team.
Photo courtesy of Africa Burn Relief.

Only 2 percent of homes in Malawi, a landlocked country in Africa, include a stove. Most families cook over a fire on the ground three times a day, and every hut has a raging fire outside of it for warmth at night.

“Kids are face to face with fire all the time,” says Jennifer Wall, PA-C, a physician assistant at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Burn Center.

Given the prevalence of fires resulting from everything from cooking to bathing to cleaning, burns are a frequent and often untreated consequence of this way of life.

Wall has made it her mission to provide resources, skills training and mentorship to local health care providers to create sustainable burn treatment and prevention models in the rural village of Nkhoma, Malawi.

She first visited the village hospital in 2006 as part of a volunteer medical mission and found that not one doctor was trained in burn care.

When someone in the village sustained a burn injury, there were many factors that delayed care. They often had to raise transportation fees and became dehydrated during this period of waiting. When they finally arrived at a health care facility, staff were not always trained in this specialty to provide the kind of treatment they needed.

“There are all kinds of barriers,” Wall said. “Patients are often scared to come to a hospital in the first place because they don’t have the money to pay for their care.”

Wall is striving to change this with the Africa Burn Relief Program, which she founded in 2006. The 501c3 organization has provided burn treatment to patients in Africa at no charge since its inception. It focuses on educating care providers and seeks out patients who many need follow-up care after their surgeries.

Each year since 2006, Wall has traveled to Malawi with a small team of volunteers to provide care to patients and educate staff.

Africa Burn Relief_young boy_r
This young boy was accidentally dropped into a heating fire while being cared for by his older brother, age 6. The Africa Burn Relief team operated and, with the help of other NGOs, was able to help him begin to walk again.Africa burn relief_young boy walking

Twice a year, she hosts fundraisers in the U.S. to meet Nkhoma Hospital’s burn care needs, including a prevention program, surgery fees, high-protein foods, medications and other expenses for all patients. She raises about $30,000 a year to cover these costs.

The program has recently expanded to include a seizure prevention program, which currently treats 250 patients with epilepsy in the village. Providing them with medications to control seizures reduces the likelihood that these patients will be burned. Their chances of falling into a fire when having a seizure are high, as they may be cooking or otherwise in close proximity to open flames. Because of taboos around epilepsy, other people in the village will not pull them out of the fire.

Africa Burn Relief is seeing tangible and hopeful results. In 2006, the death rate for patients with burns in Nkhoma was approximately 30 percent. Today, it is 4 percent, the same rate as the U.S.

To learn more about Wall and the Africa Burn Relief Program, visit www.africaburnrelief.com.

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