Lifting the Burden of Malaria

5 minutes read time
 sprayer marks a house after completion. Indoor residual spraying of homes with insecticides kills malaria-carrying mosquitoes and other pests.
A sprayer marks a house after completion. Indoor residual spraying of homes with insecticides kills malaria-carrying mosquitoes and other pests.

Lifting the Burden of Malaria

This year, malaria will kill more than 400,000 people around the world. The vast majority will be kids in sub-Saharan Africa.

In Zambia, the disease is accepted as a fact of life. Despite success fighting the disease, nearly 5 million malaria cases were reported in the country in 2015, and it’s the number one cause of hospitalization. The disease causes Zambians to miss work and school, further entrenching them in poverty and hunger.

The Government of Zambia and the U.S. Government — through the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) — has worked in districts, villages and remote communities to achieve historic reductions in malaria deaths and illness. The program has armed people with the tools to protect themselves from malaria and provided them with fast-acting medicines to cure malaria if they do become infected.

Losing a child to malaria is devastating. Here in Zambia, the pain is evident in the eyes of women and men who lost sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, nieces and nephews, neighbors and friends.

Dorica Ncoma Zulu, a 43-year-old agro-business entrepreneur in Kafumbwe village, has a difficult time talking about her youngest daughter. Fourteen years ago, the girl died from cerebral malaria at less than 2 years old. Dorica watched her racked with shivers and fever, before succumbing to the disease.

These days, Dorica and her grandchildren sleep under insecticide-treated bednets and her home has been sprayed. When both Dorica and her husband had malaria symptoms earlier this year, they were tested and treated right in the village. Her grandchildren have not suffered from malaria at all.

“Today, my children and grandchildren are fine,” said Dorica. “There is no more sickness. My husband is in good health. We we are working and business is going well. All these put together is enough reason to sing and dance.”

In partnership with the Zambian Government and its National Malaria Control Program, PMI — led by USAID and implemented with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — has played a major role in reducing malaria transmission by distributing mosquito bed nets, spraying homes to eliminate mosquitoes, diagnosing and treating the disease, and administering preventative treatment for pregnant women — who are disproportionately at risk.

When prevention measures fail, prompt and effective treatment is imperative. Treatment begins with recognizing the symptoms of malaria, seeking treatment immediately at the onset of illness, and having access to health care workers who know how to treat malaria.

With a health system choked by a shortage of doctors, community health workers are essential in Zambia’s villages. As many villagers live far from health clinics and hospitals, these frontline health workers in their communities are often the first, and sometimes only, providers of health services like diagnosing and treating malaria.

Adrian Banda is one such community health worker, a position for which he receives no pay. He is also the headman of his village, Kalinde in eastern Zambia, and a farmer. As a community health worker, Adrian cares for about 1,500 people in 11 nearby villages. He is a vital link between his village and the rural health center, which is 5 miles away.

Adrian was 22 when he lost his father. He lost his mother to illness a short while later. “This is what motivated me to get involved and educated about health,” he said. “I was so proud to be chosen by my community as a health worker. Wherever I go, people praise me as a village doctor.”

Adrian attends to 15 to 20 people each day, most of whom present with fever. He’s been trained to administer a rapid finger-stick test to see if malaria parasites are present in the blood. When he started, community members didn’t know how to look for signs of malaria.

“Now, we are able to test and treat community members. We educate them on how to take the medicines, emphasizing on finishing the course,” he said.

Midwife and nurse Mirriam Chisamba takes on many roles. She’s also an administrator, a counselor and a health champion for the 15,000 people living in scattered communities in a 7-mile radius of a regional health center in eastern Zambia. And because she lives directly across from the facility in Kafumbwe, she is always on call.

Five years ago, Mirriam almost lost her daughter Tamani, 10, to a severe bout of malaria. “It was really scary when my daughter got sick,” Mirriam said. “I thought, ‘Is she going to die?’ ”

Tamani recovered, but the memory sticks with Mirriam. These days, she noticed not as many kids get sick with malaria.

PMI began in 2006 to work with countries in sub-Saharan Africa to remove the intolerable burden of the disease. Today, PMI operates in 19 of the highest-burden countries across sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the Greater Mekong Region. In sub-Saharan Africa, the scale-up of proven, effective malaria prevention tools has contributed to saving an estimated 6.8 million lives across the continent.

A decade ago, malaria was almost certainly a death sentence for poor children in Africa. Now, communities are creating a healthier, happier and more sustainable future by stopping malaria in its tracks.

About the Author: Chris Thomas is the communications lead for the U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative, led by USAID and implemented together with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Editor's Note: This article orginally appeared on the Medium.com.