STILL ON THE MALARIA SCOURGE

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The health authority needs to allocate more resources to contain the scourge

The Director, Malaria Project, Society for Family Health, Dr. Ernest Nwokolo, recently resorted to scary imagery to underline the depth of the malaria scourge in Nigeria. He said that with no fewer than 800 deaths recorded daily in the country due to malaria, Nigeria is burdened with two Boeing 747 plane crashes every day with no survivor. His data corresponded with the earlier submission made last April by Mr. James Entwistle, former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, during the World Malaria Day.

According to Entwistle, an estimated 100 million malaria cases and about 300,000 deaths each year make Nigeria the country with the highest number of malaria casualties worldwide. The disease, going by available data, “is responsible for 60 per cent of outpatient visits to health facilities, 30 per cent of childhood deaths, 25 per cent of deaths in children under one year and 11 per cent of maternal deaths”, said Entwistle who attributed the challenge to widespread fake and substandard medicines.

However, Nwokolo said the number of deaths due to the scourge could be reduced drastically if Nigerians stopped embracing malaria as part of their lifestyle. “When Nigerians imbibe all preventive measures against the scourge,” said Nwokolo, “including keeping their environment clean, removing stagnant water from their environment, consistent use of long lasting insecticide treated nets and proper diagnosis before treatment, it would go a long way in curbing the burden of malaria in the country.”

The World Malaria Report 2016 released a fortnight ago revealed some improvements in diagnostic testing for children and preventive treatment for pregnant women. For instance, national surveys in 22 sub-Saharan African countries indicated that about half of children under the age of five with a fever received a malaria diagnostic test in the public sector in 2015 compared to 24 per cent in 2010. Similarly, the number of pregnant women who received some form of preventive treatment also increased five-fold. But the report also painted the grave challenge standing on the path of eliminating the scourge: the enormity of the numbers of people afflicted with the ailment. Sub-Sahara Africa still bears the greatest malaria burden with 92 per cent of the 212 million new malaria cases and 429,000 deaths worldwide in 2015.

It is indeed instructive that the Nigeria Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) recently reported that no fewer than 51 million Nigerians tested positive to the malaria parasite in 2015, while a WHO survey revealed that the highest number of such cases occurred in the North West and North Central zones of the country. “Unless our government funds research by creating enabling environment, putting the right infrastructure in place and human capacity to do research, we cannot make progress,” said Dr. Sam Awolola, NIMR deputy director for research.

In identifying the challenge to ending malaria in our country, Awolola painted the picture of a country unserious at dealing with a problem that claims the lives of many of our citizens on a daily basis. “Nigeria has a vaccine development laboratory but for many years, no money has been made available to run it. The American government has put close to $20 billion in developing genetically modified mosquitoes in the last 20 years, and up till now they have not been successful, but with us here, within one or two years we want results. Research is a long term venture, but result will definitely come at the end,” he said.

The latest World Malaria Report has charted a course towards gradual elimination of the scourge–the need for a coordinated and collaborative pan-African response and the need to plough additional funds to support international efforts. And as Nwokolo suggested, perhaps we need to continuously talk about malaria and its associated risks, preventive approaches and treatment “so that there would be a behavioural change.”