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Abel Mutua narrates pain of losing a childhood friend to malaria

 Former Tahidi High Actor Abel Mutua. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

In the eyes of Abel Mutua, one of Kenya’s foremost creative directors, content creator, actor, and avid storyteller, malaria has a face. That face is etched in Mutua’s deepest reaches of his soul, a face that refuses to fade away. A scar that time is yet to heal.

Mutua had a childhood friend, Kevin Mwaura, who, like Mutua, loved theatre. The year was 2003 and the 17-year-old Mwaura had qualified to perform at the Kenya National Drama Festivals in Kisumu. The boy is elated. And so is Mutua. But amid the colourful performances, some dark force was stalking him.

Mutua explains: “Kevin travelled to Kisumu for the 13-day festival with hopes of clinching the Best Actor award. His first performance was on Day Six and he did very well. His school qualified to perform at the gala which usually happens on Days 11 and 12. When the time came, something wasn’t right. He felt weak and feverish but he still tried and performed.”

Mwaura came back to Nairobi where his fever got worse before he was taken to hospital. By this time, the malaria parasite was deeply embedded in his body. He never made it out of the hospital. Cerebral malaria had taken yet another victim.

“Kevin was the first close person I lost. One never forgets that,” says Mutua.

In Kenya, almost everyone knows of a family member or friend killed by the disease whose statistics are usually numbing.

Nearly every minute, a child dies from malaria, a child who would have lived to contribute to the health and well-being of other children. The disease accounts for 13- 15 per cent of all outpatient attendance in public health facilities.

The statistics refuse to go away despite concerted efforts to eradicate one of the deadliest diseases known to man and one that seriously damages the Kenyan economy through lost workdays, resulting in school absenteeism and poor performance not to mention treatment costs.

Kenya has made great strides in fighting the disease, halving its prevalence from 11.2 per cent in 2010 to six per cent in 2020.

Kenya has a vision to be malaria-free by 2030. However, the progress is hampered by drug and insecticide resistance, climate change, and an urgent need for strong financial commitments to reach elimination, amongst other things.

Sparking concerns among health authorities is the resurgence of malaria in areas deemed to be free of the disease. Between December last year and January 2024, 977 patients were screened in Murang’a  County, with 93 testing positive for the disease in various health facilities. This is the highest reported number in two decades. There was one fatality, a student from the Kamahuha School within the county.

According to John Mwangi, the Country Lead for Kenya Malaria Youth Corps, young people are bearing the heavy burden of the disease.

“This grim reality is not confined to statistics,” says Mwangi. “It permeates the lives of our youth, the heartbeat of this nation and affects their health, education, economic trajectory, and overall well-being. In a malaria-ridden environment, a youth plays a pivotal role by caring for affected siblings and serves as the go-to person for assisting parents or elder relatives.”

And now, influencers such as Mutua, prominent Kenyans and other young people have decided to take the scourge head-on. For example, Mutua is now the Zero Malaria Starts with Me Kenya ambassador. He will advocate for Malaria eradication by using his unique and powerful voice to reach millions of Kenyans.

"As a local influencer in Kenya, I've learned the importance of perseverance and teamwork. The fight against malaria requires the same dedication while encouraging everyone to play their part in eradicating this disease," said Mutua.

Other prominent voices in the fight against the scourge include TV personality, Yvonne Okwara who will leverage on her influence to spread the message about malaria prevention and control.

A week ago, the new program run by the Ministry of Health's National Malaria Control Program, launched a new campaign dubbed "The Power of EveryONE", a campaign that will give Kenyans the opportunity to play their part in the national goal of zero malaria.

The national campaign is complemented by localised versions, focused on increasing awareness and encouraging sustainable behaviour change that will help protect more Kenyans from the disease, with particular emphasis on the endemic regions of Kakamega, Kilifi, and Kisumu.

“Malaria is a significant public health challenge in Kenya and this campaign is a testament to our unwavering commitment to combat malaria,” said Dr Joseph Lenai, the director for Preventive and Promotive Health. “By harnessing the collective efforts of the government, partners, and communities, we are confident that we can significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the incidence of malaria in these most affected regions.”

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