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Kenyan youth should be at the forefront in war against malaria

A nurse gets ready to administer a dose of the malaria vaccine to a child [Courtesy]

Malaria holds us back. Every two minutes a child dies from the disease. This highly treatable and preventable disease is a drain on the economies of African countries, keeping children out of school and adults out of work, stifling productivity, contributing to the cycle of poverty, and limiting the enormous future potential of children and young people. 

There were 229 million malaria cases and 409,000 deaths across the globe in 2020, more than 90 per cent were recorded in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, approximately 70 per cent of the population is at risk of malaria, with 14 million people living in endemic areas and a staggering 17 million others in areas of epidemic and seasonal malaria. National malaria prevalence is high and remains one of the top 10 causes of death in Kenya, with an incidence of up to 27 per cent among children aged under five, particularly in the western lake region.

Despite such challenges, Kenya has recorded significant improvement in coverage of malaria prevention and treatment. President Uhuru Kenyatta, chairman of the Africa Leaders Malaria Alliance on the fight to eliminate malaria, the Division of the National Malaria Programme, together with partners including the private sector and NGOs, have positioned malaria as a key national health priority and continue to contribute towards positive, sustainable progress in fighting the disease. 

In the ongoing fight against malaria, galvanising and energising the critical youth demographic is important as young people below the age of 35 represent an astounding three quarters of Kenya’s population.

In order to beat malaria for good, Kenya needs to engage its greatest asset, source of energy, innovation, ideas, and solutions; the youth, who are crucial advocates in achieving a zero-malaria country for future generations. As a nation, we must recognise the centrality of the role of young people to open the doors to more robust and comprehensive collective efforts in tackling this deadly disease and strengthening our health systems to create a world that is safer for everyone.

At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw a lot of young people offering home-grown solutions to the myriad new health and economic problems. We saw innovative young Kenyans making extra hospital beds, producing protective face masks, and even manufacturing affordable personal protective clothing, showcasing the true Kenyan spirit and the urge to find solutions even in the midst of what often seemed near-impossible situations. 

Kenyan universities produce over 50,000 graduates annually, some of whom are equipped with the research tools for grassroots solutions to take malaria head on. Many graduates have devised innovative national and regional health action plans that, if implemented and resourced, could potentially bring the number of malaria infections down significantly, ultimately strengthening health systems and freeing up limited resources to fight future pandemics and other prevalent diseases such as cancer.

With a growing population of young jobless Kenyans looking for their next challenge, funded research into malaria strains, pathogen mutations and changing mosquito behavioural patterns could go a long way towards helping young researchers to crack the problem of malaria and, just like the men of old, bring real and workable solutions closer home.

A recent survey conducted by the RBM Partnership to End Malaria and Gallup International, shows that African youth are determined to end malaria. Conducted across six countries - Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, and South Africa - the findings reveal that nine in 10 youth in Africa believe that they can have an impact against the disease. 

The data shows that youth are most likely to volunteer their time to support malaria control efforts, for example by distributing mosquito nets or supporting community clean-up activities (50 per cent), even ahead of simply sharing information about malaria on social media (45 per cent). A quarter also hope to make a difference by calling on national policymakers (26 per cent) or engaging community leaders (25 per cent) to prioritise malaria.

With this in mind, it is imperative that the youth contingent take ownership of the malaria fight as powerful agents of change, creating a vital bridge towards hitting the global commitment to reduce malaria by 90 per cent by 2030.

Through ALMA’s innovative Youth Army initiative, their perspectives, aspirations and efforts must be front and centre of any strategies going forward if we are to achieve a malaria-free country, not as afterthoughts or disconnected silos. Every young person has a role to play, a role in fighting the disease that has plagued our country and continent for long by drawing the line against malaria!

To quote the inspirational words of malaria survivor, Kenyan athlete and Olympic gold medallist Eliud Kipchoge: “I believe in the power of human potential and our ability to change the world because no human is limited. Malaria has no place in our lives today. This disease has stolen from us for too long, stopping people from working and children from going to school. Even now, malaria is still taking the life of a young child every two minutes. We can change this; we can overtake this preventable, treatable disease and end it in my lifetime.”

Ms Njaga is Africa Regional Director Malaria No More UK. Dr Githuka is Head of the National Malaria Programme Kenya


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