Ethiopia is gearing up for an epic battle with malaria, possibly later this year. The stakes are high, with international aid agencies betting millions of dollars that the Horn of Africa's largest country can wipe out a disease that kills at least a million Africans every year. VOA correspondent Peter Heinlein reports on Ethiopia's unique chance of eradicating a killer disease.
The battlelines are drawn. The troops in this fight are equipped with life-saving medicines, diagnostic kits and protective gear. Health Minister Twodros Adhanon says Ethiopia is on high alert for the next attack of malaria-carrying mosquitos. "We have deployed 30,000 health extension workers over the country, civil servants, high school graduates with one year certificate training out in the village to train and empower our communities," he said.
Humad Ibrahim belongs to a nomadic tribe that roams Ethiopia's remote Afar region. Now he's also a health worker. Equipped with a cellphone, medicines and diagnostic kits, he is on the scene in the event of a malaria outbreak.
"We are not free of malaria," Ibrahim said. "But it is better than it was before."
Historically, a malaria epidemic hits Ethiopia every five to eight years. The last one, in 2003-and four, caught the country unaware. Millions contracted the disease. Nobody knows how many died.
Since then, aid agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to prevent the next outbreak.
In a country with a doctor shortage and a mostly rural population, Ethiopia's Health Minister, Twodros Adhanon, says bednets for all, and an army of village-level health workers are the cornerstones of the strategy to beat the disease.
"We have 10-million households in malarious areas, the target was to distribute 20-million, that's two bed nets per household. A very ambitious target," Adhanon reported.
Hospitals in the malaria zone are on alert, screening for signs of a surge in caseloads.
The US Agency for International Development believes Ethiopia has a unique opportunity to beat the disease because, unlike in most African countries, malaria is seasonal here. It hits hardest right after the rainy season, around September or October. USAID'S malaria program chief in Ethiopia Richard Reithinger says only time will tell.
"We're basically due for another big epidemic year, and the big question is, are the number of cases that-- we usually would see about 10-million cases in an epidemic year-- is that number going to be lower, or is it going to be as high as before, as in 2003-2004," Reithinger said.
Ethiopians believe they can control the next outbreak, and prove to skeptics that the huge sums being spent battling malaria can produce a decisive victory.
With another epidemic due, the battlefront is ready. Health workers are at their stations, confident of defeating one of the region's biggest killers.
The U.S.-backed Global Fund for HIV, TB and malaria is betting they can. The fund has just approved another $290-million grant to the campaign.