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Kenya’s hard-won gains against malaria threatened by rising temperatures


Mary Achieng’s family are in the malaria ward at Nightingale Hospital in western Kenya almost every month. During this visit at the end of August, she was treated with her two sons, aged 4 and 12. All three are recovering from an illness that has long devastated their region.

“Malaria hit my family hard. In one month I spend about $35 on medicine and the next month one of them gets sick again,” she said. “Right now we’re in the hospital, they’re not in school, and I haven’t been able to open my business,” she told CNN.

Achieng lives in Kisumu, Kenya, a hot and humid lake region where conditions are ideal for malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. She is one of 14 million Kenyans who live in areas where malaria is endemic and who are battling the burden of a disease that kills an estimated 10,000 people each year in the country.

Malaria is now feared to spread to new communities in the country – just as the development of the world’s first mosquito vaccine is raising hopes that this deadly disease may one day be eradicated.

The reason: climate change.

Mosquitoes thrive in hot, humid conditions, and the man-made climate crisis is fueling more frequent and severe heat waves and storms that leave behind pools of water where insects like to breed.

In Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa, this means that malaria-transmitting mosquitoes threaten communities where outbreaks were previously rare.

Scientists from the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) are studying reports of cases of malaria in people who had not recently traveled out of areas previously considered ‘malaria-free’.

This includes places like the Kikuyu highlands, on the outskirts of the capital Nairobi, where scientists first discovered mosquitoes that transmitted malaria. A significant rise in temperatures in the region – around 1.3 degrees Celsius over the past 60 years – could be a driving factor, they said in a recent report.

Steve Ngugi, a 45-year-old Kikuyu resident, was shocked to learn he had tested positive for malaria in February despite not having traveled to a malarial area. It was the first time in his life that he contracted the disease. With little or no immunity, malaria left him extremely ill, weak and in fear for his life for three months.

Kenya’s hard-won gains against malaria threatened by rising temperatures

“The behavior of the mosquito that transmits malaria is changing rapidly and this is changing due to global warming,” said Gitahi Githinji, CEO of Nairobi-based non-profit group Amref Health Africa. “And we find that in reality the public health system is not prepared for this resurgence,” he told CNN.

It’s a problem that affects many countries in Africa, which bear 95% of malaria infections, killing more than 600,000 people every year – most of them children.

A recent report found that malaria-transmitting mosquitoes have reached new heights in sub-Saharan Africa, climbing an average of 21 feet in altitude each year for the past 120 years. That’s a pace that keeps pace with climate change, according to the report’s authors.

“Where the cooler places are getting hotter, we are seeing an increase in the rate of malaria in those areas due to the breeding of mosquitoes,” said Richard Munang, climate change program coordinator for the United Nations environment agency. United Nations.

Experts warn that other continents are also at risk, as the climate crisis gathers pace.

“What happens in Africa will gradually find its way elsewhere, because with global warming and temperature changes, malaria mosquitoes are migrating to other areas that are suitable for them,” Munang said. As insects move to different territories, people will be moved, he explained.

Kenya’s hard-won gains against malaria threatened by rising temperatures

There is good news in the fight against malaria. Scientists and health experts have made progress in the fight against the disease over the past two decades using a wide range of preventive measures.

In Kenya, the increased distribution of insecticide-treated bed nets, preventive doses of antimalarial drugs and nationwide awareness campaigns have contributed to a dramatic decrease in malaria.

Today, with the introduction of the world’s first malaria vaccine, hailed as a breakthrough, there is talk of one day achieving eradication.

Around 1.7 million children in Kenya, Ghana and Malawi have benefited from the vaccine since its pilot roll-out in 2019, leading to substantial declines in severe malaria and child deaths.

It is therefore a bitter irony that, as Kenya celebrates hard-won progress, new species and new cases of malaria are emerging in areas historically considered low risk.

“We were on the verge of bringing the cases to a minimum, to undetectable levels,” said Damaris Matoke-Muhia, a senior researcher at KEMRI’s malaria control laboratory.

But climate change means they’re seeing more mosquitoes than before, she told CNN. “We are seeing new species. We are seeing (malaria) spreading to places where we did not expect,” she said. “We are down to zero,” she added.

If global temperatures continue to rise, Matoke-Muhia said, “it’s likely that our story will change when it comes to malaria.”

“If it continues like this,” she added, “we have to go back to the drawing board and start thinking about new interventions.”