Learning from our mistakes and from history: a Malaria tale
Malaria Nicola Follis is an international development consultant currently working in Nigeria on the DFID Justice for All Programme. This is her story.
Current headlines are full of alarming stories on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. As an international development consultant who spends a lot of time working in Nigeria, I have had my fair share of family members and friends express concern at my continuing to travel to that part of the region. But a disease that I have experienced firsthand and am is malaria,
With an estimated 207 million malaria cases worldwide in 2012 (the majority of which occur in Africa) Nigeria - a regular place of work for me - accounts for more cases and deaths than any other country. 100% of the population are at risk, with some 48 million cases and at least 180,000 deaths every year (at the time of writing there have been deaths from Ebola)
Given these statistics, I always knew I was at risk of contracting malaria whilst working in the country and at first I was fairly rigorous about my prevention regime. I diligently took my anti-malarial tablets and used mosquito repellent after dusk. However, after about a year I stopped taking preventative drugs and, I will admit, that with time I got blasé about the dangers if I did catch malaria. I naively thought it would be just like a bad case of the flu, providing I got treated.
But in October last year, whilst on a work trip in Nigeria, I started to display some of the tell-tale symptoms of malaria – fever, headache, aches and pains. I put off getting tested for a few days in the hope that it was just a passing cold (I had deadlines to meet! I had a weekend of socialising in Lagos lined up!). This was an extremely stupid move, and one I came to regret because I had one of the more serious strains of malaria (P.falciparum) which can become life threatening extremely quickly, which is why people are urged to seek testing and treatment within 24 hours of symptoms.
And unfortunately due to the delay in my case this is exactly what happened. My condition deteriorated rapidly and I ended up as an emergency admission in a Lagos hospital spending a week on a drip in intensive care. I also developed a serious complication, Blackwater Fever, where the red blood cells break down in the bloodstream and which I later discovered can often lead to organ failure and worse. Luckily after four days during which I remained seriously ill, I started to respond to treatment and was eventually discharged and able to return home to London to recuperate. But I wasn’t quite out of the woods yet, as I developed further complications (not uncommon in serious cases of malaria) including severe anaemia and an enlarged spleen which meant I was in and out of hospital for two months.
Now back to full health with the only long term impact an apparent lowering of my ability to tolerate alcohol (!), I realise that my story might not have had such a happy ending without access to a well-equipped clinic in Lagos and specialist follow-up treatment in London’s Hospital for Tropical Diseases. The reality for too many of those living in Nigeria and across Africa is very different. A child dies from malaria every minute despite treatment costing less that the price of a cup of coffee. And as we know, prevention is better than cure. We have an arsenal of effective and inexpensive preventative interventions at our disposal, from Insecticide Treated Nets (ITNs) to Indoor Residual Spraying (IRS).
As a result of my own experience I wanted to support the fight against this disease and in June this year completed a sponsored climb to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania (another malaria endemic country) for Malaria No More UK – a charity which aspires for us to be the generation to beat malaria (http://malarianomore.org.uk/mnmtv). Malaria No More UK is keen to put a spotlight on the great progress the past decade has seen with child deaths from the disease halved since 2000 (saving more than 3.3 million lives) and 26 countries now on track to eliminate malaria. But we are at a tipping point in the fight against this disease and its imperative that we ensure progress is not derailed by a drop in funding or attention. History has clearly and repeatedly shown us the deadly consequence of prematurely ending anti-malaria programmes as massive malaria resurgence has frequently occurred following the ending of local malaria programmes in Africa.
I won’t be repeating my mistake of being blasé about malaria. And I can only hope the global community doesn’t become blasé about the need to continue investing in the fight against malaria to avoid history repeating itself. After all, aren’t we meant to learn from our mistakes, and from history?
You can raise funds to help end child deaths from malaria by clocking up some #MilesforMalaria (http://malarianomore.org.uk/milesformalaria)