By: PCV Alice McKinstry, PC/Zambia
I remember one of the best camping trips I’ve ever been on. It’s not really the trip as a whole that stands out, but the small things about it – folding origami dinosaurs, going for walks along the Puget Sound beaches, and telling scary stories in the tent at night. But as sharp as all the good memories are, they’re nothing compared to the agony that I recall first: mosquito bites, literally over one hundred of them all at once. I’m sure you all can relate to the itchy, overwhelming feeling.
For most people in America, mosquito bites are an annoyance, something that we reluctantly accept as part of the summertime experience. But we’re lucky in America – we don’t have to worry about sleeping under bed nets, being alert for a fever and rigors, or taking prophylaxis pills daily. In America, we don’t have to worry about malaria.
To an individual living in Sub-Saharan Africa, malaria is simply a fact of life. I encounter it daily. My host mother will come and tell me about one of the girls who is suffering from malaria. My meetings are rescheduled because of a funeral; the man died from malaria. Babies show up at the clinic with fevers through the roof, and their mothers leave with malaria treatment to administer. I tell my host family I’m feeling under the weather and they immediately ask if it’s malaria. The disease is everywhere.
Malaria, for those who don’t know, is a parasite transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito. It is transmitted from human to insect, then insect to human again, through a bite, usually within the hours of 11 PM to 5 AM. There are different species of the malaria parasite, but the most dangerous is one that we encounter often here – cerebral malaria, caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite, which can and does kill. All it takes is one unlucky bite.
Why does malaria persist? After all, it’s highly preventable. There are hundreds of insect repellents specially targeted towards mosquitoes. Bed nets are commercially available, and are often even given away for free thanks to funding from malaria relief organizations. There are medicines available to cure malaria, and again, they are often provided for free to those in need of them. So why is it still such an issue?
The major reason is a lack of education. People in rural villages have lived with malaria all their lives, yet some still don’t know even the most basic facts about the disease. Every illness is presumed to be malaria, even if its symptoms are nothing near the fever, chills and rigors, headache, and other telltale symptoms of malaria. People are also often unclear on how malaria is even transmitted. Wild myths exist, such as my personal favorite: that you can catch malaria by eating green mangoes.
Even when people are provided all the materials necessary to avoid being bitten – bed nets, mosquito repellant smoke coils, DEET spray, and other things – the missing link is the education. Without proper education as to the reasoning behind the application of all the preventative measures, people often fail to see the point in them. They know they’re supposed to hang a bed net and sleep under it every night, but if they don’t know why, they won’t feel compelled to protect themselves.
I can say with all certainty that my bed net is my favorite possession – above my iPod, my warm socks, and my coffee sent from Seattle. My bed net does more than just protect me from mosquito bites. It also keeps out other creepy crawlies and gives me a sense of security. No matter what is happening outside that net, inside it I am safe.
Luckily, we don’t have to worry about malaria in the United States. It was eradicated by the use of DDT, and as such, we don’t have to sleep under bed nets or take other precautions against the disease. But we’re privileged in this respect, and we often forget about how deadly malaria is. Historically, Peace Corps has named a goal to stop the spread of malaria, and today we’re going full-steam ahead. Peace Corps Volunteers in all African countries are currently hard at work to reduce the effects of malaria in their areas. There are murals being painted, skits being performed, information fairs being held, and blogs like this one being written – but we can’t do it alone. So much of the support for malaria-ridden areas comes from those areas that are malaria-free, such as the United States. But if the people capable of speaking up against this disease aren’t aware of its impact, we’ll never get the support we need.
Malaria is almost certainly not a problem in your American backyard, but it is an ordinary part of life here in Zambia. Stop and think about that, though – a killer disease, an ordinary part of life? A parasite that kills hundreds of children daily, par for the course? A preventable and treatable illness that is so ingrained in the culture here that it is casually mentioned even while it robs life? That’s something I can’t believe. We Americans have grown to forget the seriousness of this disease, all thanks to its eradication in the States. I hope that someday my friends and family here in Zambia, and people all throughout Africa, can enjoy that same luxury – sleeping with the cool summer breeze over their skin, unhindered by a bed net, and only having to worry about mosquito bites as the pesky itches they are and nothing more.
April 25th is World Malaria Day. If you’re in an area free of malaria, I invite you to take a walk in our shoes. Imagine sleeping under a bed net every night, quite possibly with your entire family. Does it feel a little claustrophobic? A little stuffy? Well, it’s better than the alternative. But until the threat of malaria is eradicated, bed nets are the way to go. They really do save lives – especially those of pregnant mothers, children under five, and persons living with HIV. A quick Google search can bring you any number of veins through which to donate these nets – often just USD$5 apiece. For more information on what we’re doing in Africa, please visithttp://stompoutmalaria.org. You can also get involved and keep updated by ‘liking’ the Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/StompOutMalaria!
What will YOU do to help Stomp Out Malaria?