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Climate Change Brings Malaria to New Areas of Kenya

As G-8 leaders debate what action they are going to take to tackle climate change, poor communities in Kenya's highlands are already feeling the impact of global warming. Katy Migiro reports from our Nairobi bureau that increased temperatures are bringing malarial mosquitoes to areas that were previously safe from the disease that kills more Africans than any other.

Africa is considered the continent that has done the least to contribute to climate change, but that has not made it immune to the problems caused by climate change.

Warmer, wetter weather is taking malaria into new regions, including the highlands of Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.

Kenyan scientist Shem Wandiga has studied malaria in the Lake Victoria region over the last 30 years. He says that warmer temperatures have brought malarial mosquitoes to the highlands around Mount Kenya - areas that, until a few years ago, were completely malaria free.

Gerald Mwangi Walterfang of the Kenyan NGOs Alliance against Malaria says people in Kenya's highland regions are particularly vulnerable to malaria, often dying quickly, because they do not have any immunity to the disease.

"If you have malaria and you have no access [to medicine] and you don't have funds to go to private hospitals, you are looking at death within less than 24 hours," he said.

Malaria is the number one cause of death in Kenya, as it is across Africa. Children are particularly vulnerable. Up to 40,000 infants die of malaria in Kenya each year.

Drugs to cure malaria cost around $10, way beyond the budget of the majority of Kenyans, who live on less than $2 a day.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria is financing the distribution of free drugs and bed nets across Kenya.

But Professor Wandiga says that such efforts, while laudable, are not enough. Many families are too poor to afford beds and sleep on mats on the floor. It is hard to securely cover such sleeping areas with mosquito nets.

Professor Wandiga says the only truly effective way to reduce the number of deaths caused by malaria in Africa is by eliminating poverty.

"Economic empowerment we have seen in our survey helps people to be less vulnerable to malaria," he said. "So poverty accentuates vulnerability to malaria. You want to provide preventive measures if the disease occurs, but if you are able to give people the means to support themselves and look after themselves then they will be less susceptible to malarial mortality."

The world's top scientists, reporting to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, predict that climate change will also increase the prevalence of other diseases, including Rift Valley fever, meningitis and cholera.