A Peace Corps volunteer’s scary brush with malaria

Peace Corps Health Volunteer Alisa Langfords shares a personal story on malaria – which she learned about the hard way – for World Malaria Day, which takes places this week on April 25. 

Me an J

Justice balances his little legs off the edge of my lap and giggles, seemingly unwitting of what happened last week – that his precious life was compromised.

Photo caption: Alisa and her lil’ buddy Justice. 

I arrived home one afternoon to find my best friend in my village, Gifty, closing up her shop and preparing to go to the hospital. She told me that her two and a half-year-old son, Justice, was brought there by her husband Jackson and she was going to join them.

A little panicked, I asked what his symptoms were – fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea – and she described how his eyes were rolling back into his head, “like this” as she demonstrated. We hurried to find a car, with no luck. Taxis only leave my village intermittently and none were around. After an anxious hour, a man with a motorcycle returned from the farm and took Gifty to see her baby.

Everyone here knows Justice is my favorite little guy. I talk about him constantly and adore just about everything he says or does. In fact, I would venture to say that Justice is a lot of people’s favorite. Men returning from the farm brush off their exhaustion, put down their machetes, and come to pat his slightly-too-big-for-his-body head, chanting his nickname, “Justo!”  Usually, he’s playing car with a variety of circular objects, running back and forth with his signature boundless energy.

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Look at this little man go!

He’s the kind of kid who’s going places. His parents have done everything right, including saving money for future schooling and teaching him early. This little guy can already repeat the English alphabet and count to 20. Who else does that at two?

With the family still at the hospital, I spent the night worrying, and can only imagine how Gifty and Jackson felt.

In the end,  Justice was fine, but it turns out that he had contracted malaria. Malaria is a disease that kills nearly 650,000 people in Africa every year, most of them children under five. With limited immunities to the disease, young children are more likely to develop cerebral malaria, which can lead to severe developmental issues and even death.

But there are the “strong men” in my community who believe they have little to worry about. While Gifty and her family sleep under a bed net every night to protect against malaria, many people brush off its importance, saying it is too hot and they aren’t worried about malaria. After all, they’ve had it several times before, and they’ve survived.

But this is not always the case for the children. Many Ghanaians do not understand that if they are infected, a mosquito can bite them, and re-infect someone else, including someone vulnerable to malaria’s harsher effects. In short, Justice’s malaria came from somewhere, and it was probably an adult who didn’t use their net.

While my counterpart, Osei Nkuah, and I work to educate our community and promote bed net usage for all people, we must also rely on our fellow community members to help spread the word: If every person sleeps under a bed net every night, all year round, we can eventually eradicate this terrible disease.

A West African proverb says that it takes a village to raise a child, and in the case of surviving malaria, it is most certainly true.

For more information on the work that my fellow volunteers and I are doing in malaria prevention, check out stompoutmalaria.org/bamm2013. And don’t forget to join ONE, the Centers for Disease Control and Malaria No More UK for a special Google+ Hangout on malaria for World Malaria Day! 

Alisa, a graduate of Cal State University Northridge, started her service with the Peace Corps in Februrary 2012. She is from Palmdale, Calif. 

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