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Climate change fuels Malaria crisis in Kenya

Dec. 11, 2019, health officials prepare to vaccine residents of the Malawi village of Tomali, where young children become test subjects for the world's first vaccine against m   -  
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Jerome Delay/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved.


As temperatures rise globally, the impact of climate change on the transmission of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria, becomes increasingly evident. In the arid lands of Isiolo, Kenya, the story of Wilson Mutai, a 76-year-old farmer, and Kelvin Onkoba, a 25-year-old nursing intern, sheds light on the destructive consequences of malaria and the challenges faced by those seeking treatment.

Mutai recounts his recent diagnosis with malaria, a disease he describes as both destructive and lethal. Hospitalized in Isiolo, he faced a grim reality — the medical facility lacked the necessary medication for treatment. Faced with limited options, Mutai sought the services of a private doctor who could treat him at home, highlighting the inadequacies of the healthcare system.

“I was taken to the hospital, and when I got there, a blood test was done, and I was found to have malaria. But the hospital did not have any medication. I had to look for a doctor who could treat me at home," Mutai explained.

This struggle for treatment is not unique to Mutai. Kelvin Onkoba, a nursing intern, also experienced the impact of malaria on his life and work. Diagnosed with the disease, Onkoba faced the challenge of missing four days of work, impacting the community he serves. The unavailability of medication at the facility compelled him to dig deeper into his pockets for treatment.

“The medication was not available at the facility, so I had to even dig more deeper in the pockets in terms of accessing medication," Onkoba shared, highlighting the financial burden that can accompany seeking treatment.

In response to the escalating impact of climate change on disease transmission patterns, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) have collaborated with the Zoonotic Disease Unit to study the effects on mosquitoes and disease transmission.

James Akoko, a research scientist at ILRI, explained the purpose of setting up weather stations in the region, stating, "The reason we have set up a weather station in this area is to be able to capture different environmental conditions like temperature, like humidity, like wind speed and wind direction to be able to really relate how these different components of climate could be influencing the population of vectors and also could be influencing the disease trends we are seeing around here."

The research involves trapping mosquitoes in the region to monitor their population and the pathogens they carry. Joel Lutomiah, an entomologist at KEMRI, detailed the process: "When the mosquitoes are trapped from the field, they are transported in a cold chain, that is liquid nitrogen, to the KEMRI laboratory. And this is where now they undergo identification so that we are able to tell what species are present in that particular area."

Hussein Abkallo, a molecular biologist at ILRI, explained the further analysis conducted on the mosquitoes: "We also extract RNA, which is another nucleic acid for the viruses, and using polymerase chain reaction, we then determine the type of the virus that is carried by the mosquito.”

The Horn of Africa, including northern Kenya, has experienced destructive floods recently, contributing to stagnant waters that become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Willis Akhwale, a senior advisor for Kenya Malaria Council, linked the heavy rainfall to an increase in vector-borne diseases like malaria.

"There is more breeding, there are more breeding sites, and there is, therefore, a high chance of transmission of vector-borne diseases like malaria, like dengue, like Rift Valley fever, and chikungunya," Akhwale explained.

The World Health Organization's 2023 malaria report highlights a concerning trend, with an estimated 249 million malaria cases worldwide in 2022 – 16 million more cases than the pre-pandemic level in 2019. In response to the growing crisis, two new vaccines, RTS,S and R21 Matrix M, are expected to be rolled out in several African countries in 2024, offering hope in the fight against malaria.

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