Ethiopia is gearing up for an epic battle with malaria,
possibly later this year. The stakes are high, with international aid agencies
betting millions of dollars that the Horn of Africa's largest country can wipe
out a disease that kills at least a million Africans every year. VOA
correspondent Peter Heinlein reports on Ethiopia's unique chance of eradicating
a killer disease.
The battle lines are drawn. The troops in this fight are
equipped with life-saving medicines, diagnostic kits and protective gear.
Health Minister Tewodros Adhanon says Ethiopia is on high alert for the next
attack of malaria-carrying mosquitoes. "We have deployed 30,000 health
extension workers over the country, civil servants, and high school graduates
with one year certificate training out in the village to train and empower our
communities," he said.
Humad Ibrahim belongs to a nomadic tribe that roams Ethiopia's remote Afar
region. Now he's also a health worker. Equipped with a cell phone, medicines
and diagnostic kits, he is on the scene in the event of a malaria outbreak.
"We are not free of malaria," Ibrahim said. "But it is better
than it was before."
Historically, a malaria epidemic hits Ethiopia every five to eight years. The
last one, in 2003 and 2004, caught the country unaware. Millions contracted the
disease. Nobody knows how many died.
Since then, aid agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to
prevent the next outbreak.
In a country with a doctor shortage and a mostly rural population, Ethiopia's health
minister, Tewodros, says bed nets for all, and an army of village-level health
workers are the cornerstones of the strategy to beat the disease.
"We have 10 million households in malarious areas, the target was to
distribute 20-million, that's two bed nets per household. A very ambitious
target," Adhanon reported.
Hospitals in the malaria zone are on alert, screening for signs of a surge in
The U.S. Agency for International Development believes Ethiopia has a unique
opportunity to beat the disease because, unlike in most African countries,
malaria is seasonal here. It hits hardest right after the rainy season, around
September or October. USAID'S malaria program chief in Ethiopia, Richard
Reithinger, says only time will tell.
"We're basically due for another big epidemic year, and the big question
is, are the number of cases that--we usually would see about 10 million cases
in an epidemic year-- is that number going to be lower, or is it going to be as
high as before, as in 2003-2004," Reithinger said.
Ethiopians believe they can control the next outbreak, and prove to skeptics
that the huge sums being spent battling malaria can produce a decisive victory.
With another epidemic due, the battlefront is ready. Health workers are at
their stations, confident of defeating one of the region's biggest killers.
The U.S.-backed Global Fund for HIV, TB and Malaria is betting they can. The
fund has just approved another $290 million grant to the campaign.