Lovenes Joas, 22, sits on the edge of a metal-frame hospital bed, cradling her baby daughter, Hapines Joas, in her arms. As she tries to comfort the squirming child, Lovenes crushes up a soft yellow pill and mixes it with water. She tilts her daughter’s head back to force the syrupy liquid down her throat. Hapines wails, tears streaming down her cheeks, and slowly settles back down to a whimper against her mother’s chest.
Hapines is Lovenes’ first daughter and at just three months old, is already fighting malaria. Lovenes and Hapines share a bed with another mother and child, Stella Peter, 30, and Nizelesos Peter, 10 months, who is also being treated for malaria. “Malaria is a big problem in my family,” says Stella, raising her voice so that we can hear her above the cries of a dozen or so children. “I am a farmer. Right now I could be farming, but I am here losing time because of malaria. It hurts the health of my kids…Even now [while I am here], my three-year-old at home has malaria, but no one is available to take him to the hospital.”
Malaria is the number one health condition seen at Lukole Health Center in Ngara, in the green hills in far northwestern Tanzania. Its clinician in charge, Dr. Fred, has worked here for a year and estimates that each month he sees 300 cases of malaria among children and as many as 250 cases among adults. Of the roughly 40 patients in the in-patient ward, Hapines and Nizelesos among them, some 30 percent are there because of malaria.
Lukole Health Center was originally established to meet the healthcare needs of Burundian refugees fleeing civil war, who streamed across the porous border just miles away. The Burundian refugees joined Rwandan refugees who were already living in Ngara following the genocide. The influx of refugees prompted the international community to respond, including Concern Worldwide, which provided water and sanitation and other support in the camps. It was in Great Lukole Camp that Concern discovered, almost by accident, the power that a very special plant could have in the fight against malaria.
When the international response wound down and the camps were no longer sprayed with insecticide, Concern’s program manager, Girmay Kahsay, and environmental health officers, Letician Missana and Donald Sokoni, started to look into how they could control malaria using indigenous plants. The Rwandan refugees living in Great Lukole Camp suggested a plant with bright yellow, pink, and red flowers, lantana camara (Lantana), as an effective, low-cost mosquito repellent.
The refugees are gone, but Concern, now the only international NGO operating in Ngara, decided to take the local knowledge further and conducted a study, together with the Tanzania-based Ifakara Health Institute, in which we planted Lantana around 231 homes and then measured the number of mosquitoes (or mbu, as the locals call them) inside the houses. What we found was remarkable: Those houses that had Lantana had 56 percent fewer Anopheles gambiae and 83 percent fewer Anopheles funestas, both malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and 50 percent fewer mosquitoes of any kind.
I spent the past five days in Ngara, speaking with households that have Lantana around their houses. Family after family said the same thing: There are fewer mosquitoes in their house because of Lantana and, most importantly, they now rarely get malaria. John Elfast, 60, first planted Lantana around his red-mud house, where he lives with his wife, 50, and four children, ages four to 17, in 2008. “Since we planted Lantana, we no longer suffer from malaria,” he says. “None of [our] kids have been sick since we planted Lantana. It’s not only kids, but me and my wife too.”
His neighbor, Peruthi Eliasha, 52, has Lantana growing so high it nearly covers her windows. “I love it,” she says. “[Before we had Lantana], the kids had malaria at least two times a year and we would have to take the children to the hospital, which is a long walk. Since June of last year, no one in my family has had malaria.”
The contrast between families with and without Lantana is stark. We met a woman, Dora Joseph, 31, who had one bed net, but no lantana around the home she shares with her husband and four children. “Someone has malaria at least once a month,” she says. “We have seen several people die from malaria, including a four-year-old child. I worry that my kids will also die from malaria.”
It’s impossible not to think about the impact that a simple plant could have on the lives of Dora, Lovenes, Stella, and millions of mothers like them, not to mention their children. While Lantana will by no means be the end of malaria, it seems that it could be a powerful weapon against it, especially when used together with bed nets and residual spraying.
But while we know Lantana repels mosquitoes and we hear from family after family that they aren’t getting malaria as often as they used to, we need to prove it. The next step is a clinical trial that will measure not just the number of mosquitoes, but also the number of malaria cases across a wider number of households in Ngara and throughout Tanzania. It will cost approximately $1 million to do the clinical trial, but when you think about the millions of dollars that are spent on treating malaria every year, not to mention the number of lives that are needlessly lost in Tanzania and across the developing world, I cannot think of a more worthy investment.
Meanwhile, John, Peruthi, and the others share the same message: Their lives are better because of Lantana, and they wish more people were using it to keep the mbu away.
What do you think the most effective ways are to control the spread of malaria?
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Crystal Wells is part of the communications team at Concern Worldwide US, a global humanitarian organization committed to eliminating extreme poverty and improving the lives of the world’s poorest. Before Concern, Crystal worked on-the-ground in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake and subsequent cholera outbreak. She has bachelor’s degrees in both business administration and communications from Boston University and lives in New York City. Visit Concern | @concern
These are solely the author's opinions and do not represent those of TakePart, LLC or its affiliates.