| The young man you see in this photo, with the 1000-watt smile, is Tuma. You wouldn’t think he’d be the person to highlight on World Malaria Day, but he is the best example I know of to show why preventing and treating malaria is so vital. Tuma’s full name is Tumaini, which means hope in Swahili. I’ve never met a person with a more fitting name, even in the face of many enormous obstacles, malaria being only one.
Now 17, he started coming to one of our centers in Moshi when he was 11. By then, with absolutely no services, therapy or medical interventions, the severe cerebral palsy he was born with had already caused his muscles to be completely contracted. His parents are very loving and supportive of him. They all share a one-room mud house. Despite these challenges, I’ve never known a person who smiles and laughs more. He is an absolute RAY of sunshine.
Tuma has malaria. Malaria is a treatable, but not curable, disease. Those who have it are always at risk of another flare up. It’s caused by a parasite called Pasmodium that is transmitted by infected mosquitos, and it’s a leading cause of child illness and death in Africa. Anecdotal evidence as well as the results of our annual PROMOT Health program screenings has revealed that it is one of the top health problems experienced by children in our program here in Tanzania as well.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), children represent 85% of all malaria deaths because their immune systems are not developed enough to fight it. Add to that the fact that children with disabilities, who live in severe poverty, often have more fragile immune systems. Now you can see why learning that Tuma’s malaria was active was frightening.
Here’s another way that malaria has affected the children we serve in our program: when a mother has malaria that becomes active during pregnancy, her baby is at serious risk of being born prematurely and having low birth weight, both factors that contribute to disabilities. Many of the disabilities we see in children in our program likely stem from this very situation.
About six weeks ago, Tuma’s malaria ravaged him, causing high fever and headaches, along with general weakness. This made him more susceptible to other illnesses, and pneumonia also set in. I went to visit him at St. Joseph’s hospital, where he stayed for three weeks fighting his battle, along with Getu, who manages health and education programs here in the Tanzania program. We weren’t sure what room he was in and asked the nurses.
When we saw Tuma in the bed, it was very emotional. There he was in his hospital gown, rail thin and suffering from fever and coughing. I realized in that moment that without being in the program, and without having the healthcare provided through our PROMOT Health program, Tuma’s family would never have been able to get him this help. They probably wouldn’t have been able to save Tuma from malaria. Tuma is loved by so many, and brings so many of us joy, that it was a concept I could barely think about.
We’re in the middle of rainy season here in Moshi, and rainy season in a place with poor infrastructure and few paved roads means stagnant pools of water. Those pools means mosquitoes. Mosquitos in this part of the world mean malaria. To prepare for this, our program provided specially treated malaria nets to the families in our program just before Christmas.
The distribution of the nets was quite an event. Our staff demonstrated the proper way to hang and use the mosquito net. At the end, a local pastor offered a prayer for the safety of the children and families. Families who couldn’t attend the event received their nets at the centers or by delivery by our outreach workers. However they received them they were all overjoyed to get the nets, as they are expensive to purchase for those who have so little income.
Tuma is now back to his normal laughing, radiant self. He is back at our center every day, again learning how to read (which he loves!) and enjoying his friends there. So on this World Malaria Day, I say: take THAT, malaria! You won’t claim any of THESE children!
*A special thank you to everyone reading this who helps provide funds for our PROMOT Health program. I realized how important this program was soon after arriving for my year fellowship in September. My experience with Tuma’s malaria and pneumonia, however, really drove home that many times, this is the difference between life and death for the children and youth in our program.