A Life Dedicated to Fighting Malaria
Submission by: Novartis AG
Photographer: Brent Stirton for Novartis
Text: Nadine Schecker
In Kenya, about three-quarters of the population is at risk from malaria, and all four infective species of the malaria parasite occur in the country. Even after substantial progress, malaria remains the leading cause of mortality in Kenya, killing an estimated 30,000 people every year – most of them children under 5 years old.
Lake Victoria in southwestern Kenya is on the front line of the fight against malaria, and Agnes Akoth is a key figure. Tall and striking, this towering force of energy in Kisumu County is a 35-year veteran of the global quest to eradicate the deadly disease. Ms. Akoth works as a head nurse at the US Army Medical Research Unit-Kombewa clinic, known locally as the Walter Reed Project. She provides much-needed local leadership and addresses poor understanding of malaria in communities. Her own experience of contracting the disease while pregnant with her youngest child has made her resolute about what must be done.
Diagnosis, education and prevention are top priorities for the Walter Reed Project. Scientists work with global healthcare company Novartis in conducting research and running clinical trials for antimalarial vaccines and drugs. Teams of community health workers head for local villages everyday to collect blood samples, perform malaria tests, administer drugs, and advise people on how to prevent the disease. Ms. Akoth and colleagues give away insecticide-treated mosquito nets to pregnant women at maternity clinics, among other practical measures used to combat the disease. Ms. Akoth talks about her own experience with malaria and how she has watched it kill young children, strike down men of working age, and rob families of economic independence.
Fighting malaria in this part of Kenya is a constant challenge: bad weather, poor-quality roads, and a lack of knowledge among locals about the disease all combine to make life difficult for healthcare workers. Still, Ms. Akoth believes the key to tackling malaria, especially among children, is to expand proven interventions until they reach every child who needs them. It’s a huge task, but lives are being saved and death rates are falling. That’s her motivation to carry on.