I just discovered that our upcoming medical mission in April 2017 coincides with World Malaria Day, a World Health Organization effort to raise awareness about this serious illness and how it can be eradicated. In reading their publicity, I learned a few things:
I've spent a total of about two years in Ghana now, and I can share some first hand information about malaria. Luckily, I've never had it, but more than likely I'll get it eventually - most people that spend much time in Ghana do. Short-term travelers can take malaria prophylactic medications like doxycycline or quinine-based meds, but they can't be taken over the long term. So we keep an eye out for symptoms, and have test kits and treatment handy. Most people who live in Ghana couldn't afford preventative meds that need to be taken daily, even if there weren't side effects. The other issue with preventatives is that if they were widely used, the malaria organism would build up a resistance, making treatment ineffective. Already, one of the most widely used treatments for complicated malaria (chloroquine) is becoming less effective. The race is on to develop new medications that work better.
It's not uncommon that children get malaria at a very young age, and once the Plasmodium parasite that causes it enters the body, it can never be totally eradicated. Thus, malaria becomes a recurring illness, that can be triggered by stressful situations (like hunger, sickness or the day to day stressors of life). My partner gets malaria at least once a year - the first time he had it, he was four years old.
We normally sleep in the open air when in the village and using a mosquito net is absolutely necessary - mosquitoes come out by the millions at dusk. Some people actually sleep without one and I don't know how they manage to not be sucked dry by morning. If one moves around in one's sleep and some part of your body touches the net, the mosquitoes will bite you right through the net. I can't tell you how many times I've woken up with my toes swollen with bites and itchy as all get out - and the net covered in blood. Mosquitoes gorge themselves on blood and then regurgitate what they can't use. Not to mention, the Anopheles mosquito that carries malaria is a sneaky little sucker. They're tiny, and you don't even feel them bite, which I suppose is an evolutionary advantage when feeding on sleeping mammals!
Taking steps to reduce the risk of malaria is the best course of action, if possible. Wear long pants and a long sleeve shirt in the evening and spray your exposed skin with a DEET containing bug repellent, burn mosquito coils in open areas if you're sitting outdoors, spray your room with insecticide before bedtime, or burn a coil - and tuck in your mosquito net. For a lot of poor people in villages, these steps aren't possible (they can't afford sprays and all and may not have a net).
On our medical mission in October 2016, we tested anyone with malaria symptoms (fever, chills, headache, vomiting and diarrhea). About one out of ten of our 800+ patients were positive and were given free malaria medication. In at least a couple of these cases the disease had progressed to the severe stage and we may have helped the patient avert death.
When we return to Ghana in 2017, we'll have more test kits and meds with us. A test kit costs about $1 and treatment costs around $5 per person. Please consider a donation to cover the cost of treating malaria for these villagers. If 10% of our patients have malaria and we see 1000 patients (our expected number of patients for our April mission) - that's 100 cases of malaria. If we can stop uncomplicated cases before they progress, we can save 100 lives.
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