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Senegal's Casamance Region Struggles with Malaria

  • Joe Bavier

Courtesy WHO/AFRO
Today is Africa Malaria Day. This year's observance marks the half-way point of a pledge, signed by African leaders five years ago, to cut the number of the continent's malaria deaths in half by the year 2010. But in the Casamance region of Senegal, health officials still have a long way to go if they are to meet pan-African expectations.

In a hospital in Ziguinchor, in Senegal's southeastern Casamance region, a baby suffers through the symptoms of cerebral malaria. She is running a fever. Chills consume her. Her tiny body aches.

It is Africa Malaria Day across the continent. But in Casamance, which is emerging from more than two decades of fighting between local separatists and government forces, there is little to celebrate.

Dr. Momodou Nbdoye is the local head of a public health organization called Africare, which is one of the only organizations offering care to malaria victims. Dr. Nbdoye says the conflict aggravated a situation that would have been bad anyway.

He says a lack of infrastructure, bad roads, an absence of health care facilities and a malaria season that spans the entire year have made Casamance one of the most dangerous areas for the disease in West Africa.

Though official figures here are hard to come by, Dr. Nbdoye says at least 60 percent of all people seeking treatment in hospitals here do so because of malaria.

Africare is doing its best to fight the trend, selling essential chemically treated mosquito nets on credit and at cut rates. But despite distributing around 4.500 nets, it is still a long way from beating the disease.

Fatou Ceesay says she brought her young son to the hospital after he came down with a fever. She says doctors feared she had come too late. The boy's malaria, they said, was too advanced. But she considers herself lucky. After treatment, the child survived.

She says the government had been largely absent from Casamance once the rebellion broke out, but now that it is over she wants it to do more to help people here.

And since a peace accord was signed between Dakar and the separatists earlier this year, the government is coming back to Casamance little by little.

But as the head of the Malaria Knowledge Program at London's School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Dr. Jo Lines points out, even governments in West Africa need help fighting malaria.

"There is a vast amount more that needs to be done," he said. "A whole load more money needs to be put into buying bed nets, but also buying drugs. And in particular, helping governments to support policy change to more expensive and more effective drugs. There is no doubt that the main reason why people say, oh the malaria problem is getting worse in Africa is that the drug resistance situation is getting worse."

Malaria kills more Africans than any other disease. Most of them are children. The World Health Organization reports that each year in Africa, nearly one million children under the age of five fall victim to the disease.