My malaria story is probably one that a large segment of the Kenyan population can relate to. May 12, 2018, was by all standards a typical day in the life of a politician.
With a series of engagements lined up in Alego Usonga and everything going according to plan, at no point in the day did I anticipate disruption of any kind.
Well, that was until at some point in the afternoon when I lost consciousness, and later got admitted to Aga Khan Hospital, Kisumu. The diagnosis? Malaria – a severe variant that had at that point in time started to affect my brain. Rapid response and timely medical intervention saved the day.
In the most humbling way, that medical emergency gave me an up-close encounter with a disease that is by all accounts a thorn in the flesh of Africa, and Africans by and large.
As a country we have achieved many milestones since Kenya became a signatory to the 2001 Abuja Declaration, committing to rolling back malaria across the African continent. Over the past two decades, we have witnessed a progressive decline in the transmission of Plasmodium falciparum, the malaria-causing parasite.
Today, prevalence rates have dropped significantly, especially among the most vulnerable population, mainly expectant women, and children under the age of five.
In the endemic zones – western Kenya and the Coast region – aggressive programs ranging from disease surveillance, mass distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor residual spraying, and enhanced case management have had a resounding impact and a positive effect on the population’s health and wellbeing.
As we observe World Malaria Day, we celebrate every victory while recognizing the present challenges and the hard work that lies ahead. Sub-Saharan Africa carries a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden.
According to The World Malaria Report 2021, the African region was home to 228 million malaria cases and 627,000 deaths recorded in 2020. Children under the age of five accounted for about 80 percent of all malaria deaths – this translates to 537,600 innocent lives lost in one year alone to a disease that is preventable and treatable.
Pitted against the gains of the previous 20 years, the shocking statistics may seem like a lost battle. We must view the collective efforts to vanquish malaria as a marathon and not a sprint. A classic example is that of China, which was recently declared malaria-free by the World Health Organization.
Their journey to Zero Malaria took 70 years. Decades of targeted and sustained action made it possible to shift from 30 million malaria cases annually in the 1940s to Zero Malaria status in 2021.
Kenya is currently averaging 3.5 million new malaria cases annually. This translates to approximately 9,500 cases daily. With each case comes the associated downtime as the patient recovers and regains strength.
The impact on productivity, disruption of learning, and the financial burden at the macro and household level are all significant effects that must be discussed in context.
The economic impact of this disease is estimated at $ 12 billion in Africa alone. In Kenya, 12 million days of work are lost each year. Recent research findings indicate that as much as 50 percent of medically related school absenteeism is attributed to malaria.
These losses should jolt us into recalibrating our strategy: the game plan needs to change to embrace a broader outlook, that sees the war against malaria as an investment that will yield positive returns in our quest to grow and strengthen our economy.
Twenty years since the war on malaria began, we are indeed today standing at an inflection point: what we do today will determine how far we go in our quest to eradicate malaria.
It will, however, require stronger commitment, a clearer focus, and collective ownership of the huge task ahead. We are on track, especially with the recent introduction of the ground-breaking malaria vaccine targeting children under the age of five.
No child must be left behind. One life lost is one life too many. Malaria should not, and will not, steal our children.
Insecticide-treated nets have been largely hailed as low investment and high-impact intervention that will bring us closer to our goal. As a country, we have made significant strides in increasing net cover from 2 percent in 2000 to just above 50 percent in 2021.
The onus is on us to ensure that those nets are used responsibly, every night. We should question loudly when we see these nets being deployed irresponsibly, or not at all.
At the policy level, the country has a clear strategy in place, and alongside that strategy, a pool of professionals and partners committed to walking Kenya’s journey to Zero Malaria.
It is a journey that has had and will continue to have some bumps along the way, but also one that will present sobering moments of reflection, and many occasions for some well-deserved celebrations.
To the youth of Kenya, and Africa at large. There is no better time than the present: yours is the generation that may well see Malaria vanquished in your lifetime.
As Kenya prepares for a new regime in the coming months, we can build upon the successes that have brought us this far.
Let us individually and collectively draw the line under malaria and commit to creating an enabling climate that takes us closer to our goal.
Amollo is the Member of Parliament for Rarieda