A British family’s experience of malaria
Malaria Our family has had a real rollercoaster with malaria. At one time or another, all four of us have been struck down with the dreadful disease – most of us more than once.
My husband Steve and I lived in Burkina Faso for the best part of seven years, predominantly among the Fulani people in the Northern Sahel region. It was there we made our home and brought up our first daughter Libby (now 6). But after having Daisy (now 3) we decided to move further south, away from the Mali border because the risk of kidnapping was so high – Al-Qaeda were seizing hostages very close by. Bringing up a young family in Burkina was a big decision but there were many advantages; the beautiful outdoors, the constant sunshine, the community centred life… and no CBeebies.
We were acutely aware of how common malaria was. During each rainy season we heard countless stories and saw numerous friends and neighbours suffer from malaria – many didn’t have the money to treat the disease. I will never forget greeting a friend one morning who told me he had, heartbreakingly, just lost his son to malaria. Far too many children die from this preventable and treatable disease.
All of this made us very diligent as a family in terms of malaria prevention – we took anti-malaria drugs, slept under nets and used mosquito repellent every day. My husband had suffered from malaria several times before we were married, and during our years as a family in Burkina Faso, both Steve and my eldest daughter, Libby, had malaria twice. It was terrifying to see her in the grip of the fever. The first time it happened we were in a remote location and unable to get a test done. I phoned a doctor who told me what medication to give her and luckily we were able to get it quickly. But during that time I thought of all the children I knew who had died of malaria and I struggled to hide my fear as I sat mopping her forehead under a fan, feeding her ice lollies. Fortunately her fever started to come down after a few hours.
We left Burkina when it was time for Libby to start school and looked forward to living in a country without the risk of malaria. But our troubles with malaria didn’t stop there. A few months after returning to the UK, I fell sick with a fever. Initially diagnosed with ‘winter virus’, I quickly deteriorated with vomiting and was unable to stand or sleep. At A&E I was diagnosed with malaria and spent six days in hospital because my white blood cell count was so low. I was also isolated from my family because they had colds at the time and doctors said I couldn’t risk being exposed to infection.
Four months later my youngest daughter Daisy came down with a fever and vomiting. Steve and I suspected malaria as her symptoms were so similar to mine and followed the same alternate-day pattern. We pressed doctors at the hospital to do a malaria test even though they thought it was only flu. The result came back positive. It was scary to have my little girl spend the night in hospital, but she needed to be there until the medication took effect. Saying that, she was swinging from the bedposts at 2am, you wouldn’t have thought she was sick to look at her. Malaria doesn’t always make its presence apparent!
Two months later Steve became very unwell and tests came back positive for Vivax malaria – the same strain both me and Daisy had – so he spent two nights in hospital. It was almost unbelievable. Whilst Libby hasn’t had malaria since returning to the UK, the malaria parasite could be lying dormant in her liver, which it can do for up to 10 years. So it’s a waiting game and we still can’t quite believe that three of us caught malaria such a long time after our return.
Looking back, despite the challenges in Burkina, there was much we relished about the country and culture. I kept a horse that I loved and I developed a real passion for indigenous craft (from which I developed Sahel, a fair trade accessory brand using ethically sourced materials from the Fulani people in Burkina).
But life is incredibly tough for so many people living there. Stopping the spread of malaria would transform local communities and the country as a whole, as well as end the tragedy of parents needlessly losing a child to this disease. It is an indiscriminate killer that affects locals and foreigners, both young and old. As a family we know first-hand that even when you take all the necessary precautions, it is still hard to avoid getting malaria if you are living for any length of time in an affected area. Sadly malaria is a fact of life, and for too many a cause of death.