Malaria? Not in my neighborhood

April 17, 2017 by Jolayne Houtz

Senegal malaria champion Couba Diouf. Photo: Gabe Bienczycki

As a PATH-trained “community champion,” Coumba Diouf’s job is to make sure everyone in her neighborhood in Senegal takes malaria as personally as she does. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

Driving this deadly disease out of Senegal is a real possibility—if people keep up the fight.

Hey malaria, you think you’re so tough? Meet Coumba Diouf.

Dressed head to toe in royal blue, Coumba commands the room as she rises to address a crowd of neighbors gathered recently in a home in suburban Dakar, Senegal.

Coumba is a PATH-trained “community champion”—a sort of malaria block-watch captain responsible for shoring up her neighborhood’s defenses against this deadly disease. It’s a role she takes very, very seriously.

“Every night, we must sleep under mosquito nets—all the family, for all the nights, for all the year,” she instructs the group, delivering her message at a quick staccato clip.

“Why? Because we must protect against mosquitoes,” she says, pausing only for breath before answering her own question.

“Where do we find mosquitoes? By standing water.”

“Which type of mosquito carries malaria? Anopheles.”

“What is our goal? Zero malaria!”

The push for malaria elimination

Malaria is mostly a good news story in Senegal. Malaria deaths among children have plummeted by more than half in the past decade thanks to new tools and approaches and strong national leadership. If progress continues, the country is on track to become one of the first in sub-Saharan Africa to successfully eliminate the disease.

But getting to elimination means ensuring people keep up the fight against a disease that still sickens 350,000 Senegalese every year.

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Map of malaria cases in Senegal, 2016. Source: Senegal National Malaria Control Program.

“Zero malaria starts with me!”

The PATH-led community champions project trains volunteers like Coumba to mobilize their neighbors to recognize and prevent the disease.

The project is funded by a group of private-sector companies supporting malaria elimination, including WARI, a local money-transfer firm. PATH and Senegal’s National Malaria Control Program hope to expand the project with additional private-sector support.

Those volunteers are also central to the PATH-sponsored “Zero Palu! Je M’engage!” campaign (“Zero Malaria Starts With Me!”). This nationwide campaign taps well-known national soccer players, politicians, musicians, and teachers to empower communities with information about prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of malaria.

The call to arms against malaria

Coumba serves as the eyes and ears of malaria surveillance in Dalifort, about an hour outside the city of Dakar. Her mission: to make sure everyone in her neighborhood takes malaria as personally as she does.

She organizes neighborhood trash cleanups and scolds homeowners who leave standing pools of water around their water pumps that could provide breeding ground for mosquitoes.

She visits every family to discuss malaria prevention and test their knowledge. A good score earns the family a “zero-malaria” certificate; a low score earns a repeat visit for additional education.

Constant vigilance

Women and children attending a community meeting.

Yacine Seck (foreground) listens as community champion Coumba Diouf (in blue in the background), discusses how to prevent malaria. Getting to zero means keeping up the fight. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

On a recent Saturday morning, Coumba holds a community meeting in her neighbor’s living room, demonstrating how to use a bednet.

Don’t underestimate malaria, Coumba warns. It’s a dangerous illness that kills quickly. If there’s a hole in your net, you must sew it and keep using it. Keep your nets in good condition, away from the sun and anything that could tear them, she instructs the group.

In the corner, Yacine Seck sits quietly, listening intently. No one in this packed room has paid a higher price than Yacine and her family for underestimating the disease. For this mother of six, malaria is an ever-present threat shadowing the household.

She knows from her own tragic experience that Coumba is right: to eliminate malaria completely, you can never let your guard down.

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