Battling Malaria in Uganda

Fiona Kobusingye
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Posted: Nov 18, 2009 12:01 AM
Battling Malaria in Uganda

My mobile phone rang. Another nephew was down with malaria, a friend told me. Lying in his hospital bed, quinine running through his veins, Emmanuel felt the pain wracking his body. I knew it was bad, because every time I get malaria I endure the same agony and treatments.

Emma was lucky. A week earlier, he had arranged goat exports to Saudi Arabia. Although his meagre earnings would now pay hospital bills, instead of buying things he and his family desperately needed, at least he would still have his weakened body, his life and another chance.

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Every day, a million Africans are stricken by this horrible disease. The possibility of sudden death is so real that all other considerations are minor, and people just find any available money for medical bills.

Malaria has been with us for thousands of years, yet ignorance about it is still rampant. Some rural Africans still resort to ancient techniques and even associate it with witchcraft practiced against them by their neighbours. They treat victims with drum sounds, herbal mixtures and restrictions against certain foods. Naturally, many die under such care, generating vicious hostility between victims’ families and suspected “spell casters,” with disputes sometimes erupting in violence.

And so, one by one by a million, malaria exacts its toll. Meanwhile, too many people who could make a difference simply attend conferences, talk, write reports, and distribute educational materials and bed nets. Environmentalists rant about the supposed risks of insecticides, but never mention their obvious benefits: preventing disease and saving lives. Businessmen worry about Europeans blocking exports if Africans use DDT or other insecticides.

It’s the Western equivalent to drums and not eating too many mangoes. And our children keep dying.

I wish they could see what I have seen, and hear the stories I have heard. Mothers whose babies’ lives were snuffed out while they were holding them in their arms. Fathers who were so sick with malaria that they could barely stand, but still had to toil in fields every day to feed their families.

Pregnant women in villages I visit, who struggle to collect water and firewood – whose bodies are infested with malaria parasites that are just waiting to finish their incubation and strike them down. Children whose minds were destroyed by cerebral malaria. Women (like me, when I was young) whose marriages were ruined because the disease killed their babies, and their husbands left them.

Who is safe from mosquitoes that inject malarial parasites into African people? Even the wealthy are not immune. But the vast majority are our poor fisher folks, subsistence farmers, cattle nomads, labourers in city slums. They are my hard working friends, colleagues and relatives, whose minuscule incomes are constantly spent treating this disease. They are cured for a while, but the mosquitoes bite again and, like the monthly rent, they must pay doctors again, or get evicted forever from this Earth.

How long must we exist this, holding onto our lives, hoping that somewhere some merciful policy makers will throw us life-saving ropes, so that we can come aboard the modern ship that is free from this disease, that offers a small measure of hope and prosperity? We see the ships, but their captains refuse to throw us the insecticide lifeline that could save so many.

Even silence and inaction in the face of such tragedy is a clear decision. The European Union – whose members once colonized, ruled and mistreated our people – has frequently turned its eyes and ears from our tragedy, and refused to support the use of insecticides. Even worse, we are told that the EU or import companies or European consumers will ban flowers and foods from Uganda and Kenya – or refuse to buy them – if we use DDT to save lives. They know their attitudes and decisions will persuade others to ignore our plight and impose similar restrictions on us. Yet they refuse to budge – and our babies continue to die.

The ban on DDT was clearly political – not scientific or medical or based on actual evidence that people were getting cancer or being poisoned. But we are still pressured not to use this miracle repellent.

Africa’s death toll demands that effective solutions be employed, and we know from hard experience which ones work, and which do not. We know that nets and ACT drugs help, but not enough. We know spraying with DDT keeps 80% of mosquitoes out of our homes for six months, and sometimes even an entire year. We know it can cut malaria by 75% in less than two years. The world simply has to lift restrictions that should never have been imposed on us.

We need to tell activist groups like Pesticide Action Network and Greenpeace and much of the United Nations: Your policies are sentencing millions of Africans to terrible, unnecessary suffering and death. Europe used DDT to eliminate malaria and typhus, without harming its people or environment. You could save lives, and bring health and prosperity to Africa, by simply repudiating your own witch doctor beliefs and policies, replacing them with science and humanitarian concern, and letting us use DDT to repel mosquitoes and insecticides to kill mosquitoes. Your policies violate our human rights and kill children who could become our continent’s next Einstein or Beethoven or Churchill.

Organisations that claim to care about reducing human suffering must lift their voices and demand change. History will judge them harshly if they do not come to their senses, support DDT for spraying household walls, and end their unconscionable threats against our children.

The United States Congress, US Agency for International Development, President’s Malaria Initiative, World Health Organization and European Commission finally changed their policies. They now support and sometimes fund indoor spraying with DDT. Other government and health agencies must now do the same. Saying you care, and then supporting policies that perpetuate disease and death, is lethal hypocrisy. It has to end.

We, the people of Africa, applaud these countries and organizations for their actions. We welcome their increased spending on malaria programs and especially on proven insecticides and DDT.

However, our burden is too heavy. We continue to lose our loved ones to this disease. We have too many in your communities whose minds have been poisoned by years of negative publicity against DDT. We are perpetually impoverished by this debilitating disease.

We cannot do it alone. Our global partners must help us and set a good example.

Please, World Bank, United Nations, UNICEF, European Union and Greenpeace – we need you to do the right thing. Help us control and eventually stamp out killer malaria. Help us do what you did in your own countries, to make them free of this vicious disease, to make them healthy and prosperous. Join hands with us, instead of putting your hands up to block our way.

Let history and God judge you kindly.