25 April 2009
By Anne Look
Pregnant women and children are the most vulnerable to the disease, and it is estimated that every 30 seconds a child dies of malaria.
Though the disease is preventable and treatable, health workers have found that simply passing out mosquito nets and treating homes with insecticide is not sufficient. Community education is key.
Sackie Williams is a local health worker in Liberia. As part of the Ministry of Health’s Door–to–Door Campaign, he goes to people’s homes to teach them about malaria and how to protect themselves from the disease. “Actually what we noticed is that more people are not using the mosquito nets. Some people say the mosquito nets have heat, and we are actually explaining to them the importance of the mosquito net,” he said.
As part of the “Hang it up and Keep it Up” campaign, the volunteers not only hang up the nets in the homes but also do follow–up visits to make sure they are being used correctly. “The only way we can get rid of it is to tell the people how to prevent themselves and how to get rid of the disease,” he said.
The Roll–Back Malaria Campaign is a global initiative aimed at providing preventative methods to everyone in at–risk countries by 2010. They estimate that 700 million insecticide–treated mosquito nets are needed worldwide, half of those in Africa.
Though high rates of infection are still plaguing countries like Nigeria, other countries including Senegal, Gambia and Rwanda have seen significant progress thanks to awareness campaigns and improved treatment.
Dr. Claude–Emile Rwagacondo is West Africa coordinator for the Roll–Back Malaria Campaign.
He says speedy access to effective treatment is crucial.
Yet, health clinics can be difficult to get to in rural areas and people are more likely to go to a traditional healer first. By the time they go to a clinic for malaria treatment, Dr. Rwagacondo says it is often too late.
He says insuring the quality and affordability of the medicines can be difficult. Sometimes, when people get sick, they go to a small pharmacy, boutique or street corner, where vendors sell medicines that aren’t effective. He says many don’t even have the active ingredients in them.
There is a tendency to treat all fevers as malaria in West Africa, and resistance to otherwise effective treatments, like cloroquine, has become a problem.
But there are rays of hope, and thanks to the introduction of rapid diagnostic tests and combination treatments, Senegal has seen large drops in both reported cases and mortality rates.
Still, malaria impedes economic development and is one of the major contributors to poverty in Africa. The World Health Organization estimates that malaria costs Africa an estimated $12 billion a year in health expenditures and lost productivity.
Dr. Rwagacondo says if children get sick, they don’t go to school and fall behind scholastically. That affects the economy. In rural communities, if the population is always sick, they can’t work in the fields and production suffers.
Sampson Kollie has malaria. He’s being treated at the John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Liberia’s capital. “Malaria is so bad. I’m a victim of malaria. Malaria is a kind of sickness that makes you very weak. You vomit, and it drains you down. I hope the government of Liberia can do a lot for this sickness because malaria’s getting a lot of us in this country,” he said.
Though funding from the IMF, the World Bank, the United States and other donors has made it possible to subsidize treatment and prevention methods in Africa, Dr. Rwagacondo says that local governments also have a key role to play in mobilizing their populations and eradicating malaria in the long term.