Beating Malaria, One Household at a Time


This article appears in Interpreter Magazine, March/April 2014 edition. The issue is dedicated to the work and ministry of UMCOR.

By Carrie Madren

For Bilyatu Luther, a widow who cares for her four children and two extended family members, malaria has been a constant menace. Luther, who lives in Nigeria and works as a cleaner earning less than the national minimum wage, has felt the financial burden as well as the emotional strain of malaria — sometimes taking each child and dependent to the clinic as many as three or four times in the rainy season.

Last year, Luther and her family received three insecticide-treated bed nets from the Rural Health Center in Zing, and now make noticeably fewer visits to the health clinic for malaria treatments. “I want to extend my sincere gratitude to the donors for providing these humanitarian services at virtually no cost,” says Luther, whose family is among the many who have received mosquito nets and training through Imagine No Malaria.

Since 2008, the Imagine No Malaria program, implemented by the United Methodist Committee on Relief, has worked to fight malaria and prevent malarial deaths. Their efforts have organized and trained some 11,600 local people in villages and communities. These people reach and teach neighbors about this fatal — and fully preventable — disease through educating, distributing nets, providing health care and other means.

The stakes are high: Hundreds of thousands of adults and children die from malaria each year. Ninety percent of malaria-related deaths occur on the African continent. Children younger than age 5 and pregnant women are the most susceptible. However, through teaching families about the causes of malaria and supplying them with free bed nets, United Methodists are turning the tide and saving lives.

Because malaria continues to kill at a high rate in Africa, programs have been at work in Sierra Leone, Angola, Zimbabwe and Democratic Republic of Congo … and beyond.

Nyamah Dunbar (right) of the United Methodist Committee on Relief visits with a child during a mosquito net distribution by The United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola.
Nyamah Dunbar (right) of the United Methodist Committee on Relief visits with a child during a mosquito net distribution by The United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola. UMNS/Mike DuBose

Neighbor to neighbor

When Imagine No Malaria’s staff begins work with a community, local leaders help identify potential trained supervisors, who, in turn, recruit community volunteers to go door to door. It is neighbors talking to neighbors, explains Nyamah Dunbar, UMCOR senior program manager for Imagine No Malaria.

“The local volunteers are invested in the program. … These are people who will see [the families] more frequently and be able to reinforce that message long after the [UMCOR] programmers have left,” she continues. Community health volunteers receive training in how to do household registration, conduct surveys, teach the causes of malaria, prevent mosquito breeding by eliminating standing water, correctly use and maintain the insecticide-treated mosquito nets and prevent infection in other ways. After bed-net distributions, volunteers and community leaders follow up with families.

At the same time, UMCOR works with the hundreds of churches, schools, hospitals and clinics operated by The United Methodist Church in Africa to make sure they have needed malaria diagnostic tests and affordable medicines.

All of these components are part of Imagine No Malaria and UMCOR’s comprehensive integrated approach to malaria prevention, which includes net distribution, volunteer training and investment in infrastructure. Key is the training of annual conference health boards, which spearhead all anti-malaria activities in the conference. Currently, 13 UMCOR-trained annual conference health boards span 16 African countries. This comprehensive, integrated approach makes it possible to achieve and sustain gains in the fight against malaria.

Dispelling myths

A woman prepares to hang the new insecticide bed nets she received during a distribution as part of the Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola.
Filimina Camia (center) receives a new mosquito net from The United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria campaign in Bom Jesus, Angola. At left is Nyamah Dunbar of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. UMNS/Mike DuBose

While those living near urban areas often already understand how malaria starts and spreads, those in rural areas tend to know less about the disease and its connection to mosquitoes. “They have some basic knowledge and can tell you when the trends are, but they don’t know that it’s the female Anopheles mosquito looking for blood to feed her eggs,” Dunbar says. Malaria has been around for so long, she continues, that many people simply view it as part of the rainy season.

“There are a lot of myths out there [about malaria],” says Jennifer Schumacher-Kocik, malaria grants officer for UMCOR. Some people believe eating certain fruit causes malaria or evil spirits bring on sickness.

Volunteers learn how to build on people’s knowledge, separating fact from fiction. Then they teach families how to prevent malaria and use the bed nets properly. Imagine No Malaria and UMCOR have distributed some 1.2 million insecticide-treated nets across Africa. The World Health Organization calculates a total 136 million nets distributed overall in 2013.

Communities also reinforce malaria prevention and treatment knowledge through skits, plays and music — “anything that we can do to get them engaged in how they can retain the messaging around malaria,” says Dunbar.

Today, efforts by Imagine No Malaria and others have halved malaria’s impact from just a few years ago. The efforts of UMCOR staff and health volunteers — with the support of individuals and churches around the world — continue to reach people like Luther across Africa.

Carrie Madren is a freelance writer based in Great Falls, Va.