News / Africa

In Kenya, a Community Fights Against Malaria

A mosquito scout samples an abandoned pool in Malindi for mosquito larvae; Pools in empty resort homes become a breeding ground for mosquitos during the rainy seasons
A mosquito scout samples an abandoned pool in Malindi for mosquito larvae; Pools in empty resort homes become a breeding ground for mosquitos during the rainy seasons

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Michael Onyiego

As World Malaria Day was observed worldwide April 25, VOA took a look at Malindi, a city on Kenya’s coast that is fighting malaria through community action.

As the world works to eliminate malaria deaths by 2015, sub-Saharan Africa is still struggling to confront the continent’s number-one killer of children under the age of five years old.

In Malindi, the fight against malaria is a community affair. The city of about 150,000 is on Kenya’s coast, in one of the country’s two hotspots for the disease. For residents of Malindi, malaria not only is a threat to their lives and their children, it is a threat to their livelihoods.

The coastal city is a popular destination for Italian beachgoers, and its economy is based almost entirely on tourism. The threat of losing those tourists is a constant reality for the resorts and restaurants in the region.

Fighting malaria in Kenya is a challenge, with the potent, but controversial, chemical DDT banned by the government. So when members of the Malindi community sought to tackle the problem, they realized they would need to involve the city’s residents.

"There was the malaria," said Kazungu Tuva, chairman of PUMMA, a community organization dedicated to eradicating malaria in Malindi. "It was in a high risk of killing people. Many people were dying, mostly children under five and pregnant mothers. So as the community, we saw there is something we can do to volunteer so that we can assist in fighting malaria. So that we organized the community and we set groups."

PUMMA was founded in 2002 by a coalition of local organizations. The name is short for "Punguza Umbu Sahau Malaria," a Swahili phrase that means "Eradicate Mosquitos, Forget Malaria."

To that end, PUMMA employs a number of Mosquito Scouts - residents who look for mosquito breeding sites in assigned areas throughout Malindi. The Mosquito Scouts work closely with PUMMA and Kenya’s Ministry of Health to report mosquitos and deliver samples for testing.

Riziki Ramadhani, a mother of four who has been a malaria scout for five years, said, "We are doing neighborhood campaigns, we are going to the villages and the school clubs. Sometimes we do door-to-door and sometimes we make a baraza [community gathering]. We are taught the importance of controlling malaria and to sleep under a treated net and to keep the environment in good condition."

The work of the Mosquito Scouts is financed by the Swiss organization Biovision. Each scout is paid about $90 per month for their work. For Ramadhani, being a Mosquito Scout has been an important opportunity for her and her children.

"When we spray, we finish and we collect the adult mosquito then we record them," said  Ramadhani. "The work is fine. I’ve sent my children to schools."

The scouts also have introduced innovative methods for reducing mosquito reproduction. The most effective has been the use of small fish in ponds and pools to eat the larvae of breeding mosquitos. The deputy director of the Kenya Medical Research Institute, Dr. Charles Mbogo, explains how the strategy was developed.

"The idea came from the Mosquito Scouts after scouting for mosquito larvae in the hotel industry," he said. "Most of the hotels industry have these fish and when they sample that all the time there is no mosquito. They were asking us why and we informed them that actually the fish do eat the larvae. So they started introducing them into some of the areas where there were no fish and immediately we started seeing a big decline in the mosquito populations."

The work of PUMMA and the Mosquito Scouts has proven effective in recent years. Data from the Malindi District - which includes the city and its surrounding areas - shows a 20 percent drop in malaria cases reported from 2006 until 2010. But there is still much work to be done. More than 100,000 malaria cases were reported last year, and more than 40,000 were children under 5 years old.

One of the largest challenges is the hundreds of pools sitting behind the gates of Malindi’s resorts and vacation villas. As Mbogo explains, many of the city’s wealthier residents live there for part of the year, leaving behind large empty pools which become breeding grounds during the rainy seasons.

"It’s a big problem. We have what we call the abandoned swimming pools. That means nobody lives there. Now they have been left with water there and the mosquitos breed there. So we need to do something about that," said Mbogo.

There are more than 400 private cottages and villas owned by part-time residents of Malindi. PUMMA has begun to reach out to these residents, who are slowly beginning to take part in the group’s efforts. While PUMMA and the Mosquito Scouts have access to some vacation homes and resorts for testing and mosquito reduction, many more remain locked for much of the year.

But PUMMA is not giving up. On April 9, Malindi celebrated its eighth annual Mosquito Day. Local students, non-governmental organizations, health officials and Mosquito Scouts marched through the city singing songs and encouraging the community to take part in the fight against malaria.

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