March 18, 2010, Updated September 14, 2012

In the Congo even moderate burns can mean death. That’s why an Israeli foundation has flown over a Congolese surgeon, and is now training him how to treat severe burns.


Prof. Yehuda Ullman (far left) with Dr. Leon Mubenga (in the middle) working together in Jerusalem.

Among the 65 million people in the Congo, you won’t find a single plastic surgeon. And that’s a problem. It is plastic surgeons who deal with the treatment and rehabilitation of burn victims and the Congolese put their lives at risk daily when doing simple chores like cooking their dinner outside on a fire pit. Burn accidents are frequent and those who suffer burns on even 20 percent of their body tend to die, something completely unheard of in the US or in Israel, where a new project to train doctors is hoping to reverse the statistics.

Thanks to a partnership between the volunteer-based NGO Moriah Africa and the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Congolese general surgeon Dr. Leon Mubenga (33) is in Israel to learn the basics of burn wound treatment through practical work supervised by Prof. Yehuda Ullman, director of the Department of Plastic Surgery at Rambam and chairman of the Israel Association of Plastic Surgery. His experience, aided by additional Israeli support will lay the foundations for a new burn center now being established in the Congo.

“In Israel, Dr. Mubenga is more interested in treating burns than he is in plastic surgery. Where he’s from in the Congo there are no doctors or surgeons equipped to treat burns,” Ullman tells ISRAEL21c, adding that in the developed world, “People with burns on 20 to 30% of their bodies… return home after treatment, but in the Congo, they may die. Here in Israel, we succeed in saving those with burns on 80-90% of their bodies.”

In Israel, the Congolese doctor is receiving valuable hands-on training in burn protocols, burn treatment, and rehabilitation following treatment. The hope is that he will return home and apply and pass on his training so that deaths from a preventable cause – as preventable as diarrhea – can be wiped out back in the Congo.

No knowledge of basic burn treatment

Ullman says that doctors in the Congo don’t know how to deal with infection that often develops following a burn. “They don’t know how to care for the wounds, how to debride burned skin; they also have a lack of instruments and equipment that would help them treat burn victims,” he explains.

When Mubenga returns home he will have the skills to operate on burn victims, and the ability to transfer what he’s learned to other doctors. The Israelis will also make sure that Mubenga’s facilities in the Congo will be equipped with much-needed equipment for treating burns, such as skin harvesting tools. And when Mubenga departs, he will be accompanied by Dr. Eldad Zilberstein, a plastic surgeon from Soroka University Hospital in Beersheba.

Moriah Africa was started by Dr. Gila Garaway who was active in humanitarian projects in Africa, until her husband was killed there. Founded in 2002, Moriah Africa became her new conduit to Africa.

“For many years, my husband and I worked in Congo as consultants for different organizations. After his death in a plane crash, I decided to work on bringing different kinds of expertise to the country,” Garaway relates. “In this project we constantly seek experts with whom we can collaborate.”

Saving lives

Garaway is currently focusing her efforts on two large hospitals in eastern Congo, which has seen bouts of war in recent years. Since it has been difficult to bring Israelis to the Congo, Garaway decided to bring the Congo to Israel, and it was through donations that she secured for his travel and accommodation that Mubenga was able to come. The Rambam Medical Center provides the training as a humanitarian gesture.

His training in Israel will make Mubenga the first burn care specialist in his country. “Treatment options are few due to limited knowledge and suitable equipment,” he says. “In contrast to western countries, many patients with relatively small percentages of burns on their bodies die. When I return to Congo, I will pass on my new knowledge to my colleagues. This way we can save more lives.”

Meanwhile, Ullman is keeping his guest busy and when they are not in surgery or treating patients, they spend time exploring the country. So far, he reports, the experience has been eventful for both sides.

Now thanks to a joint US-Israel initiative, the Congo is getting its first burn center. Moriah Africa, the Los Angeles human rights organization, Jewish World Watch, and MASHAV, Israel’s Foreign Ministry aid arm, have announced that they are to establish a burn center in Congo. To be housed in the large central government hospital in Bukavu, a key city not only in eastern Congo, the burn center is already admitting patients, says Gila Garaway, the director of Moriah Africa:

“As the word has spread, the numbers of new patients arriving daily to the hospital here is astounding. I knew there was a problem but had no idea how many maimed people have stayed hidden away. It is a great gift to see this rich blessing unfolding here,” she said.



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