Malaria is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, affecting over 220 million people each year, and killing nearly 800, 000 - most of them children under five.
Japanese Professor Akira Kaneko took on the valiant task of eliminating malaria more than 30 years ago. And he’s had some remarkable successes.
From Sweden, Ric Wasserman brings us his story.
Lab machines are whirring, and blood samples are being sorted at Sweden’s Karolinska Malaria Research Department.
Professor in Global Health, Akira Kaneko is at work. Since 1987 he has dedicated his life to ending malaria.
Professor Kaneko’s journey began as a young researcher, when the World Health Organisation asked him to study malaria in Vanuatu, a small island nation in the South Pacific.
“I didn’t know where Vanuatu was- no idea,” he admits. “But when I checked the map of these small islands I immediately got interested.”
After four years on the Vanuatu island of Aneityum, Professor Kaneko realized there are a couple of keys in the fight against malaria.
“Strategy is very important. And also community engagement, the community ownership of the problem is also very important,” he explains.
Twenty-five years ago, he was able to eliminate malaria on the island Aneityum, by achieving the near impossible.
Enlisting the help of community leaders, they distributed medicine, and mosquito nets. Eventually they ensured that none of the island’s 718 inhabitants had the malaria parasite in their blood, thus stopping the cycle of infection.
And that led him to a much more daunting task: Eliminating malaria in Africa.
Kaneko now divides his time between the lab in Sweden and countries hardest hit by malaria.
He says that African villagers usually quickly know when a child has malaria. They’ve seen the symptoms of nausea and a fever many times before.
But what they don’t know is that many of them are carrying the disease, spreading it unwittingly.
Kaneko says this is a major problem. It is an unseen issue, because may people are harboring malaria without symptoms.
Something as simple as an impregnated bed net can keep mosquitoes at bay and save lives. But in some poor communities they’re used as fishnets instead.
That’s why community awareness programs are crucial.
In a Ugandan villagea theatre group dress up as mosquitos. In yellow and black stripes, they’re menacing. Three others are dressed in bed nets. A wrestling match ensues, until the bed net characters defeat the mosquitos.
The message is clear- nets mean safety, especially at night, when malaria mosquitos often strike.
Back at the lab in Sweden, Professor Mats Walhgren, who heads up the malaria research unit, says with program like this the prevalence of malaria has dramatically decrased over the last 15 years.
“But the situation now is more complex,” Walhgren explains. “For example in Asia, in Cambodia there is a developing resistance to the best and only drug that works there, Artemisinin.”
And while Professor Kaneko is reaching out to local communities, a new generation of scientists are doing their part in the lab, trying to understand drug resistance, so that malaria can be eliminated once and for all.