I lived and taught in the rural village of Kikuyu, in Kenya, for seven weeks. When I first arrived I thought that my experience would revolve around the education of children. I would never have guessed that one of my unforgettable experiences would be an intimate one with malaria. During my time there, I came across sick men, women, and children suffering mostly from what I would soon discover to be malaria. It is estimated that roughly half a billion people are infected with malaria every year and between 1 and 3 million die. In addition, there are millions who survive that are neurologically and physically scarred from the parasite.
The best barrier against malaria in the third world, besides a vaccine (which has yet to be created) are insecticide impregnated nets. Out of all the homes I visited in Kenya, maybe 1 in 10 homes had mosquito nets. I soon discovered that although there is a global effort to distribute nets to malaria endemic areas, there are many barriers due to inaccessibility to remote areas and the distribution of nets without educationâ€”Iâ€™ve seen them used for fishing and as garments. Furthermore, they are easily sold as a commodity, which is understandable when a family is trying to make ends meet. Lastly, a cultural barrier exists that makes it difficult to convince a family living a day to day existence to hold on to a net in order to prevent future sickness. The family I was living with certainly did not have nets.
A few weeks after my arrival, the family I was living with had a beautiful newborn named Ester. As I was about to go to sleep that night, all I could think about was how vulnerable baby Ester was. A person dies from malaria every 30 secondsâ€”most are children under the age of five. She and I were both equally susceptible of being infected with malaria, yet she was far more likely to die if infected. It was an ethical dilemma and I decided to give mine up â€”I figured that I would get a hold of another one later. And so I lay there that night, as vulnerable as millions of others around the worldâ€”without a net or malaria tablets.
Malaria JournalDays passed by. Iâ€™d get up early in the morning to travel from school to school to teach, and would get home at night, my vulnerability constantly residing in the back of my mind. I remember waking up one morning and moments after I opened my eyes I could see a mosquito flying around over my head. The magnitude of the risk I was taking hit me pretty hard for the first time. I felt as if over the past few days, I had been playing Russian roulette with life. I remember checking my body for bite marks and feeling reassured because I could not find any. Nearly a week later I woke up with a slight fever, some back pain and an upset stomach. I remember thinking that I really should have boiled the water that I used for a bit longer the previous night. I began my daily routine hoping that I would feel better as the day progressed. Unfortunately I did not. My fever got worse; I had loose stool and my back pain became more intense. I carried on through out the day and as I was walking home that night I was sweating, my bones hurt, and my joints were growing stiff. By the time that I returned home, I was convinced that I had contracted malaria. The family offered me many of the remedies the average Kenyan would have turned toâ€”herbs, tea, and spiritual purification. It is a combination of both a lack of education and money that leads people in the third world to turn to such means. Many donâ€™t understand what malaria is or how it is contracted and most canâ€™t afford the expense of medical treatment. I insisted that I should go to a hospital soon. I remember sitting there in disbelief, I was astonished by how fast it hit meâ€”it must have been 12 hours since I woke. I must have been infected about a week prior. The parasite stealthily multiplied for nearly a week, and its manifestation was utterly explosive–my immune system was failing.
My fever was well over one hundred, my joints were stiff, and my muscles were burning. A local and I embarked on a two hour journey to the closest hospital. It was pitch black and had conveniently started storming. I remember how heavy my feet were getting as the clay clumped to the soles of my shoes, and how badly I wanted to give up because I felt so weak. It was the longest two hour journey of my life. We eventually made it to the hospital, I was admitted, and treated. I had to check in to hospital for a while and, including the medication, my visit cost a whoping 700 Kenyan shillingsâ€”equivalent to nearly 9 or 10 dollars. I was shocked, not because Iâ€™m a cheap ass but because, the average Kenyan makes about a dollar a day. I had been admitted and treated without question of whether or not I could afford treatment because of the color of my skin. Many are turned away because they cannot afford treatment, while most donâ€™t bother leaving their homes because they do not have the money. I had lived, while thousands had died that same night because I had ten dollars in my pocket. Malaria does not discriminate; we are all equally susceptible to infection. Yet it is a disease that kills the economically disadvantaged, those who do not have access to, or cannot afford treatment –it truly is a plague of the poor.
Needless to say, it is a vicious cycle. Poverty makes one susceptible to malaria, while malaria itself propagates poverty because most who have it are unable to work. I realized that poverty will never be eradicated until we first eradicate disease. In my mind, the solution boils down to one thing: if we wish to eliminate malaria altogether, a vaccine is needed. Donâ€™t get me wrong, billions of dollars have been spent in search of a vaccine and on the study of the parasite. At least 80 different teams around the world are working on some aspect of a vaccination. But until then, weâ€™ll have to do with a combination of residual spraying, impregnated nets, education, and a whole lot of good hearted people who wish to make a difference in this world.