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April 30, 2012 - 13:30 -- Patrick Sampao

Last week we all observed the World Malaria Day. In Kenya, malaria was given acres of airtime both in print and electronic media.  Usually most media houses air the coverage of a ceremony organized by Kenya’s Ministry of Medical Services to mark the day.

This entails speeches from ministry officials and other industry players who also give statistics about malaria. However there was this particular reporter that went off the cuff and decided to go out and see just how much informed Kenyans are about malaria. She went to the Western part of Kenya, near Lake Victoria, a place called Nyando. This is also a high prevalence area owing to the tropical climate and rains that cause floods.

One of the residents being interviewed stole the show for me and many Kenyans who watched that newsbyte. The interviewee in question was a middle aged man. I could tell he was learned to some extent as he could express himself in English, however he most likely didn’t go past high school though I could be wrong.

To the first question, the reporter asked, how is malaria transmitted?, by his answer we could tell all he knows is that the malaria cycle begins with mosquitoes. However past that all he had were clues. For starters, according to him malaria is transmitted by bacteria and viruses that live in water. Second question, how then do the bacteria or virus end up in the human body? “If you walk over a paddle of water barefoot, the malaria virus and bacteria will get in through the soles of your feet and spread to the rest of the body”. And what about the mosquitoes?  “ mosquitoes are the ones that deposit those bacteria and viruses in the water, that’s why they re always hovering in swampy areas”

This is just one man, among the thousands in Nyando. We would all want to believe he was kidding but he wasn’t. We would also like to believe he is just one special case among many, yet he isn’t. This, if I may call it ignorance, is widespread. People here do not know about malaria as much as we assume they do. We would all be forgiven for assuming in 2012 everyone should know how malaria is transmitted. I wont even go as far as answers he gave as to whether he knew what the Millennium Development Goals were.

Worse still, this came from a man, the head of the house, a person the whole family looks up to, a mother and her children. How does the wife convince him to buy a mosquito net when the gospel according to him says malaria is contracted from walking bare foot in water? Women here are lucky; they get basic malaria facts from the clinics and even a free net if they have a child under five years. The problem is, the man will rip the mosquito net off at some point and use it for fishing or some other domestic purpose like constructing a chicken coop.

Here the men have complete domination over women. Decision making, more so management of resources is a male preserve; therefore questioning a man for ripping off the net comes off as disrespectful, and so is buying or putting up a net without the husband’s approval. How can this be countered you ask. I say we stop assuming everyone knows and start from scratch whenever we get an opportunity to teach about malaria.

If the malaria battle is to be won, especially in such environments, perhaps its time to include ignorance ,traditions and culture among other conventional challenges of fighting malaria such as poverty.

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Bart G.J. Knols's picture
Submitted by Bart G.J. Knols on

Spot on - this is what malaria is all about, not some top-level get together somewhere in Europe or the USA to celebrate World Malaria Day...the gains are fragile, sustaining them will be hard, and defeating malaria in a background of ignorance is hopeless...