I’m not one for taking pills, but malaria, I know, is not something you want to fool around with. So, on this trip to Darfur, Sudan, I’ve been religious about popping a little pink tablet every morning to ward off the flu-like disease that leaves patients shaking with chills and burning with high fever—and consequently, I’ve become somewhat casual about the mosquitoes buzzing about my ankles and ears. I’m protected, right?
It’s easy to be cavalier when you’ve got health insurance, a plentiful supply of Malarone, and a city full of doctors to return home to should you fall sick. But for hundreds of thousands of displaced people packed into camps in Darfur, those luxuries simply don’t exist. If they get bit by a particular type of parasite-carrying female mosquito—the anopheles gambiae—the consequences could be severe, or even deadly. The anopheles, if it has dined on someone else with the parasite, is very efficient at transmitting it to a new victim.
The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 500 million cases of malaria occur each year around the globe, and that the disease kills more than one million of them. More than 80 percent of those who succumb live in sub-Saharan Africa, and the vast majority of those are children under the age of five. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that every 30 seconds a child in Africa dies from malaria.
So, when 18-year-old Bush Abaker makes a plea for mosquito nets at Kalma camp in South Darfur, I read deep concern on his face. Standing next to him is Ismail Abrahim Bashir, his long arms wrapped tightly around his two-year-old daughter, Sahar Mas, as if to shield as much of her as possible from the mosquitoes that will hatch in swarms with the arrival of the rainy season.
“How about nets?” asks Bush. “The heavy rain’s coming. It can cause a lot of mosquitoes. Not myself—I talk about little babies.”
Oxfam, and other aid groups, take very seriously the threat of malaria in camps like Kalma, an eight-square-kilometer sprawl of raggedy shelters, thatched fencing, puddles, and mud that now houses more than 90,000 people. Here, a team of workers in tall rubber boots has gone on the defensive. Fanning out through several sectors of the camp, they are on a hunt for mosquito larvae. Their mission? Extermination.
Carrying large tanks on their backs, the pest-control team members search for the places the legless larvae are likely to breed, and zap those zones with Abate, a larvicide that kills the mosquitoes before they mature. Around Kalma, the bug-breeding grounds are too numerous to count: Among them are the many pits people have dug in the course of making mud bricks to shore up their shelters. With the rainy season here, the pits have become still, murky pools—ideal homes for the early stage of a mosquito’s life.
Oxfam, in conjunction with the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is managing the camp, has arranged to have some of the pits filled with sand so the water doesn’t pool there. But their vast number makes filling all of them impossible. Oxfam is coordinating with other agencies to carry out the regular spraying program—a three-month effort that will conclude by October.
“We want to do it together,” says Lawrence Teh, one of Oxfam’s public health promoters at Kalma. “If it’s done together, it will be very effective. Normally, malaria occurs mainly in the rainy season. Now that we have started spraying for the larvae—followed by adult spraying—we expect the incidence of malaria won’t be very high.”
That should offer some reassurance to Bush, Ismail, and others throughout the camp who have been clamoring for new nets to keep the mosquitoes away from their sleeping children during the night. Though the rainy season has only just started, the bugs have already begun to bother people.
“The mosquitoes are biting the children,” calls out a woman.
A sheikh pulls up the sleeve on his billowing white robe and shows me an arm riddled with mosquito bites.
Lawrence tells me that a distribution of mosquito nets has already taken place, but that he plans to do an assessment to find out how extensive the need for more of them is.