As Warming Brings More Malaria, Kenya Moves Treatment Closer to Home

With a simple medical kit and mobile phone, community health volunteers are diagnosing villagers with malaria in their own homes, offering treatment, and referring cases

By Isaiah Esipisu, Thomson Reuters Foundation 

KAKAMEGA, Kenya – When it rains in Emusala village, a person sick with a fever can find it hard to get to the nearest health center, which requires a trip along the slippery footpaths that lead to the nearest main road some 10km (6 miles) away, in the heart of Western Kenya’s Kakamega County.

But if the fever spells the onset of malaria, rapid diagnosis and treatment are essential.

That’s where Nicholas Akhonya comes in. With the aid of a simple medical kit and his mobile phone, Akhonya, a trained community health volunteer, is able to diagnose villagers with malaria in their own homes, offer treatment, and refer acute cases and pregnant women to health facilities for specialized care.

Malaria cases are on the increase in Kenya, and experts attribute the upsurge to changes in the climate.

According to Dr. James Emisiko, coordinator for the Division of Vector Borne and Neglected Tropical Diseases in Kakamega County, mosquitoes breed particularly well in stagnant water in warm temperatures.

The females feed on human blood in order to produce eggs, and if a mosquito carrying the malaria-causing plasmodium parasite bites a person, it is likely to infect them.

Kenya’s recent drought – the harshest in East Africa since 2011 – followed by sporadic rainfall in the middle of this year has created a perfect breeding environment for mosquitoes, Emisiko told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The result is an upsurge of malaria cases, especially in the Western Kenya region and around Lake Victoria.

“The only way to control deaths from this life-threatening disease is to ensure that all fever cases are tested wherever the patients are, malaria-positive cases (are) treated and all complicated cases referred to nearby health centers,” the doctor said.

He said that parents in rural areas often initially give painkillers to children with fever. When families finally seek proper medical attention, it is often too late for those who have malaria to respond to simple anti-malarial drugs, and they require expensive hospitalization instead.

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