By Francis Ngwa Niba in Cameroon
The 30 excited pupils of primary five in Ladybird Nursery and Primary School Douala, in the Littoral Region of Cameroon, get up and curtsy when I get into their classroom. “Good morning sir, good morning guest,” they greet. Most of them are 10 years old. I politely return their welcome.
Their teacher, Mbabi Gilbert, gets straight to business. “What is malaria?” he asks.
Some 20 pupils immediately flash their tiny right hands in the air, anxious to get the teacher’s attention, ”I sir, I sir, I sir!” they intone.
Gilbert selects one of the boys to answer.
“Malaria is an insect borne disease transmitted by a bite from an infected female anopheles mosquito,” he says with a mischievous smile.
That is a textbook description of how some 300-500 million people get infected by malaria globally, according to WHO figures. Over a million people will die from this largely preventable disease, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. Every minute, a child dies from malaria infection around the world and it is one of the three top killer diseases among children.
Gilbert knew I would be visiting his school two days earlier, so he must have drilled the pupils well about malaria. I am impressed.
By the time I leave the school an hour later, the pupils have answered every single question their teacher asks them and sing a malaria song I eagerly record titled; “Malaria is a very bad sick.”
This is the new front in the fight to reduce the more than half a million malaria infections and approximately four thousand deaths that occur in Cameroon annually, according to public health figures. With a low literacy rate across the country, teaching pupils about malaria helps because they sometimes take the message back to their parents who then implement some of the things their kids learn in school, like keeping their surroundings clean and avoiding standing water anywhere near their homes. Mosquitoes breed easily in dirty surroundings.
On why he always uses songs to teach his pupils, Gilbert tells me “the children easily retain any message when we use music to teach them. They feel happy and can actively participate in the lesson which is why we teach them about malaria through music.”
Malaria is endemic in three towns across Cameroon which are, the seaside resort town of Limbe, the national capital, Yaounde, and the northern provincial capital of Garoua. The Ministry of Public Health has commissioned a special report on why it is so difficult to reduce the malaria prevalence rates in these towns. Even before the results are released, Dr Moise Njoh who works in the preventive Unit of the Ministry of Public Health says it is easy to point out why malaria is endemic in the three towns; “the towns have highly populated areas so there is inadequate housing there. People are therefore forced to construct houses in swampy areas. They then live in areas where mosquitoes easily breed and it’s difficult to control. Resistance to treatment easily occurs in such areas,” Dr Njoh explains.
Like in most other countries, the most vulnerable victims of malaria are children under five years old and pregnant women. In Limbe, one of the worst affected towns, I meet the District Health Officer, Dr Manjo Matilda, who gives me a down-to-earth lesson on the symptoms of malaria.
“For simple malaria, it is usually headache, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, temperature of about 38 degrees, a bit of malaise and joint pains. There is a more severe form of malaria where there is very high fever, and there is convulsion, anemia, jaundice and even coma.”
I have had most of those symptoms she mentions at one point or another in my life so I am not exactly immune to malaria.
Dr Manjo adds that every single household in Cameroon could help in the fight to stop malaria deaths if very simple preventive measures like good hygiene, keeping our compounds clean, and not letting standing water and vegetation around our homes, were adopted. Also, using mosquito nets and household sprays to destroy mosquitoes will be extremely helpful. Above all, she advises that when we fall sick, we go to the hospital immediately.
A Patient Speaks
Mme Ngu Patience is in her mid forties. When I meet her in her Omnisport residence, one of the most populated areas of Douala, she is still recovering from her latest bout of malaria and looks frail. She tells me she keeps getting recurrent Malaria despite her best efforts to prevent the disease, and this has badly affected her work. “A sick person is somebody who can do nothing. As a teacher, I was not able to go to work; I was lying in the house, helpless and reckless. I went to the hospital, consulted and they gave me some drips and some tablets, which I took and I was freed from the malaria,” she says.
She should not be an ideal malaria victim. Her surroundings are perfectly clean, she and her three children sleep under mosquito nets but that has not prevented them from getting infected with malaria regularly. She cannot stop herself from being bitten by infected mosquitoes when she is away from the protection that her house and bedroom provides. Mosquitoes are everywhere in Douala and Public Health authorities have no clue how to eradicate them.
Malaria No More
Malaria No More (MNM) is a global charity with affiliates around the world and is one of a handful of organisations that have been helping to prevent unnecessary malaria deaths in Cameroon. MNM has has dictributed some 5.4 million mosquito nets around the world while it has helped reduce malaria deaths across Africa by 33 percent.
The charity produced a catchy educative anti malaria anthem Malaria No More Cameroon that is now played on radio and television frequently to teach people about malaria prevention and treatment. The lyrics of the song say it all:
“Malaria treatment don’t forget your dose
To all those pregnant mamas
I don’t want no palaver
So go all to the clinic
Take your drugs everybody listen
We just need prevention
To change the situation
Bed nets for the nation
Malaria is a killer
Dont take it lightly.” (From Malaria No More Cameroon)
The charity has distributed more than 500.000 treated mosquito nets in the country and carries out a number of other active campaigns that have significantly slowed down the spread of malaria in the country.
However, the fight to stop malaria-related deaths will continue in Cameroon and around the world until the disease is eradicated.
Check twitter malaria feeds for updates and news about Malaria prevention.