Malaria: not just a disease, but a way of life

It’s the most dangerous killer in West Africa, the top issue on Ghana’s health priority list, and carries a whopping price tag of up to US$ 60 million a year.  Yet for all the apparent hazards attributed to malaria, the disease is still seen in a relatively casual light in Ghana.

One of the first things people had to say when I told them I’d be working as a journalist here was, “Watch out for malaria!”  Also common were “Have fun, but don’t get malaria,” and the ever-popular “Beware of mosquitoes – they carry malaria.”

Malaria, malaria, malaria.  It seems Canadians can’t escape the idea of it, that mysterious exotic disease that mixes flu symptoms with diarrhea and eventually, if left untreated, leads to death.  It’s the Avian Flu, Black Plague, and SARS all rolled into one, that misunderstood medical monster that all hapless Canadians traveling overseas to warm climates should take the greatest pains to avoid contracting.

Before leaving Canada, my doctor told me I’d be traveling to an “extremely high-risk zone,” and urged me to do any or all of three things: purchase the most expensive of malaria medication; double up on mosquito netting for maximum protection; reconsider my trip.

My colleague at Kapital Radio, Muftaw, saw me writing this post and chuckled.  “I like your headline,” he said.  “Malaria, a way of life.  So true.”

I ended up going with the cheapest medication option known as Mefloquine, a medication whose listed side effects read much like the expected effects of LSD – hallucinations, lucid dreaming, and vivid nightmares.  Personally, I’ve never slept better.

As far as mosquito netting goes, well, I do as the locals do.

“I have a mosquito net,” said Muftaw.  “It’s brand new.  I have never used it.  It’s in my wardrobe.”

Mine too sits at the bottom of my rucksack, unpacked, unused, and ultimately, unnecessary.  I sleep in the comfort of basketball shorts, and really, the mosquitoes have largely left me alone.  They rarely venture indoors anyway.

And as for reconsidering my trip?  Well, it’s too late now, but really, for what reason?  We in North America live in such a culture of fear – of recession, of crime, of people, of spiders, of disease – that we’ve limited our opportunities to experience by simply shutting ourselves into protective bubbles.  I took so many precautions just on malaria alone before I got here, only to find that it’s a commonly contracted disease easily treated at the local pharmacy with medicine.

When I asked him how many times he’s had malaria, Muftaw shrugged.

“Too many to count,” he said.  “I thought I had malaria last week but it turned out to be just a viral infection.”

However, I’ve learned not everyone can afford to be so cavalier.  While most cases of malaria are a quick fix in the cities, there are enormous amounts of people, particularly in the north, without access to proper healthcare.

“It’s a problem, the high risk for those in the rural areas where there are no clinics, no hospitals,” said Dr. Joseph Oduro, Deputy Director of Public Health for the Ashanti Region.  “While we have the medicines to treat it, malaria can be very dangerous if you can’t actually access the medicine.”

Aside from the rare fatality, this danger presents itself in malaria’s long list of side effects, which range from anemia to complications during pregnancy.  Treating the disease can also be a heavy financial burden for many families, who all too often turn to traditional medicines as a cheaper, more familiar option.

“Many people claim they have medicines that can cure malaria, but what research has been done?” said Dr. Oduro.  “People take them and then come to the hospital with many complications.  It’s a real challenge here in Ghana… ignorance is high.”

Another problem is those who rely on traditional medicine also go unregistered in government records, therefore skewing national statistics concerning the disease.  A report released by the World Health Organization announced an estimated 3.7 million cases of malaria in Ghana in 2009.  However, that figure is deceivingly low considering how many cases annually go unreported, and consequently, untreated.  Pregnant women and children under five are especially vulnerable, with UNICEF reporting roughly 20,000 malaria-caused fatalities in Ghana among children under five every year.

The numbers are staggering.  And frankly, avoidable.  While there are dozens of government and NGO malaria-specific initiatives at work in Ghana, the fact remains: malaria is killing people in this country.  ITNs (insecticide treated nets) and anti-malarial vaccines are helping, but more can be done.  More needs to be done.

“It’s a serious threat,” said Dr. Oduro.  “Malaria is the commonest cause of morbidity and mortality in Ghana… it’s a matter of concern for us.”

I could stand to be less dismissive about not using my mosquito net.  Reality is, that net could be saving a life right now.

A poster at the Kumasi Centre for Collaborative Research in Tropical Medicine (KCCR) detailing malaria’s attack cycle

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About Chris Tse

Chris Tse is a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. The 21-year-old, originally from Coquitlam, BC, is the president of Carleton's JHR chapter. He has extensive experience in print journalism as both a reporter and an editor, and his work has been featured in The Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen, and various magazines and community papers. Aside from print media, Chris also has training in radio and television broadcast journalism, online multimedia, and news blogs. He is an aspiring documentary filmmaker with a short 10-minute doc, "Dreadheads" to his name. In addition to journalism, Chris is also an accomplished spoken word poet. He is the captain of the 2010 Canadian poetry slam national championship team, Capital Slam, and has featured in shows from Vancouver to St. Louis. He will represent Canada at the spoken word world championships in Paris in May. His work has appeared on CBC Radio and CTV, and he is the author of a collection of poetry entitled "An Ode to My Afro", and also has a CD of the same title.

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