Every Volunteer is a Malaria Volunteer

When I first heard that the Peace Corps initiative Stomping Out Malaria in Africa had a vision of every Peace Corps volunteer being a “malaria volunteer”, meaning every volunteer regardless of sector would be active in malaria awareness projects, I was a bit skeptical. As a Community Health volunteer I have an obvious interest in disease prevention and eradication efforts. My job description in a nutshell is helping the Malagasy live long and healthy lives. Malaria is a very serious and often deadly disease, cutting lives tragically short. It is a public health threat of the gravest nature. Therefore, my role as a health sector volunteer naturally encompasses malaria prevention.

But although I am for obvious reasons a tad biased in favor of health volunteers, the Peace Corps family is made up of a colorful variety of volunteer sectors filling every niche imaginable. In Madagascar we currently have volunteers in four sectors – health, environment, community economic development, and English education. I knew that my fellow health volunteers would pursue the goal of eradicating malaria with gusto. But I seriously doubted the enthusiasm of volunteers in other sectors. Why would an English teacher take the time to create lesson plans about malaria? Why would an environment volunteer stop planting their garden and plan a malaria parade? Why would a community economic development volunteer halt their current project and make a mosquito piñata? Malaria is clearly a health issue, isn’t it? So doesn’t it follow that only health volunteers should be involved in the initiative?

As the Regional Malaria Coordinator for the Antananarivo area, my role the past month was recording the malaria activities of every volunteer in my region. As the phone calls, text messages, emails, and Facebook messages from volunteers rained down I came to an amazing realization. I had been completely and utterly wrong. Peace Corps volunteers regardless of their sector were engaging in malaria prevention work. There were community economic development volunteers teaching about malaria to their partner organizations, environment volunteers writing malaria awareness blogs, and education volunteers dedicating a day or even a whole week of lessons to malaria. I have a few shining examples from my region that I’d love to share.

Travis Pringle is an English education volunteer working in a town called Ankazobe. Travis teaches CEG (middle school) and LYCEE (high school) students. On April 25, World Malaria Day, Travis dedicated all of his classes to malaria awareness and prevention. His students learned malaria vocabulary, made posters about malaria prevention, practiced setting up and using mosquito nets, played games to understand malaria transmission, and made Neem Cream, a natural mosquito repellant. Not only did Travis educate his students but he also ensured that all students would be exposed to malaria prevention messages by sharing a malaria English lesson template with his fellow teachers. In that one day alone Travis shared malaria information with 499 students. That’s 499 students who are more likely to live malaria-free lives.

Some of Travis's students learning how to use a mosquito net

Some of Travis’s students learning how to use a mosquito net

In Sandrandahy English education volunteer Carolyn Cella and community economic development volunteer Amy Wallace teamed up to plan four days of interactive lessons to be delivered to all of Carolyn’s students. The lessons they created combined English education with essential malaria messages. The first day was dedicated to learning malaria basics such as cause, symptoms, danger signs, and treatment as well as essential vocabulary in English. The second day the students were asked to draw upon what they learned the previous day to create malaria awareness posters with messages in both English and Malagasy. The third day the students worked in groups to write brief speeches or dialogues about their completed posters. And on the final day the students gave their speeches or read their dialogues in front of other classes. The students went from receiving the information on the first day to actually sharing the information with others, becoming teachers themselves, on the last day.

Travis, Carolyn, and Amy are just a few examples of volunteers dedicating themselves wholeheartedly to the Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative. And they serve as proof that every volunteer can indeed be a “malaria volunteer” regardless of their sector. After all, improving lives is a goal that transcends sector classifications and unites all Peace Corps volunteers. Shame on me for being a doubter in the beginning. But I’m quite happy to have been proven wrong.

Teaching a mixed English/malaria lesson

Teaching a mixed English/malaria lesson

Malaria – It Has Something to do with Mosquitoes, Right?

A nuisance – that’s the word most Americans would use to describe mosquitoes. In general it’s an apt description for the small insect that announces its presence with that annoyingly high pitched buzzing in your ears, inevitably followed by a fit of frenzied slapping on your part. And of course they always manage to bite you in the most inconvenient places – the bottom of your foot, between your fingers, dead center of your forehead. But for millions of people living in malaria endemic regions of the world a mosquito is much more than a mere nuisance – it is the carrier of a potentially fatal disease.

Malaria is caused by the bite of an Anopheles mosquito that is infected with the Plasmodium parasite. When a mosquito takes a “blood meal”, the parasite is passed from the saliva of the infected mosquito to the human’s bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, the parasite travels to the liver where it grows and matures typically within the window of 5 to 30 days. With some rare forms of malaria however the parasite can remain dormant in the liver for up to four years. After maturation the parasite re-enters the bloodstream to begin a hostile takeover of red blood cells. The parasites multiply within a red blood cell until it bursts and they spill out in search of new red cells to invade. The rapid destruction of red blood cells by the parasites is what causes most of the recognizable symptoms of malaria including high fever, alternating chills and sweats, headache, dizziness, and fatigue. If left untreated the disease can worsen resulting in confusion, coma, and eventually death.

In 2010, 216 million cases of malaria were recorded worldwide and of that number 655,000 were fatal. About 90% of malaria related deaths occurr in Sub-Saharan Africa, the majority children under five years old. With such a startlingly large percentage of malaria deaths concentrated in one region of the world it makes sense that prevention and eradication efforts are similarly concentrated. In recent years there has been a huge international effort to decrease those grim statistics in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Peace Corps is one of the organizations contributing to that effort. In 2011, Peace Corps announced its new initiative “Stomping Out Malaria in Africa”. This initiative unites approximately 3,000 Peace Corps volunteers working in 23 African countries (Madagascar included) in the common goal of eradicating malaria. Volunteers in these countries are working hard to educate people about prevention methods such as sleeping under insecticide treated bed nets and going to the health clinic to be tested for malaria when symptoms arise. On World Malaria Day (April 25) volunteers will be giving speeches, teaching at schools, setting up informational booths in markets, painting murals, building mosquito piñatas, organizing parades, and countless other activities all to forward the goal of “stomping out” malaria.

The road to complete eradication will no doubt be a difficult one. Due to the nature of its transmission, malaria is epidemic prone. A single infected individual could be bitten by a mosquito that then transmits the parasite to ten other people who are then bitten by more mosquitoes and transmit to even more people and so on until the situation reaches epidemic level. But with thousands of dedicated volunteers working within the communities most affected by the disease and a new global awareness that brings in much needed resources we may yet find ourselves in a world where there are no more malaria carrying mosquitoes to stomp.