In Togo, fighting the leading cause of death: malaria
19 May 2021
Monday morning. As usual, Stéphanie, 4 years old, a kindergartener, has to go to school. At 6am, her mother Hélène goes to wake her up so that she can get ready. She finds her daughter unconscious. Panic-stricken and distraught, she tells her husband and they rush to the hospital. The diagnosis was made: Stéphanie was suffering from neuromalaria or pernicious access, the most severe form of malaria. She was taken to the intensive care unit and regained consciousness only days later, on Friday.
This scene is repeated all too often throughout Africa. According to the WHO, malaria kills more than 400,000 people every year, and, as of 2018, Africa accounted for 94% of those deaths. Children under age 5, like Stéphanie, are the most at risk. UNICEF reports that every 2 minutes a child dies from malaria.
In Togo, malaria is the leading cause of hospitalization and the leading cause of death. The government health ministry says that malaria is “endemic with a transmission that lasts almost the whole year throughout the national territory.” In other words, the entire country is at risk for malaria, at all times of year.
“Every year, we have here about 2.4 million people affected by malaria and we record about 1,200 deaths on average per year,” says Dr. Tinah Atcha-Oubou, coordinator of the National Malaria Control Program.
Malaria is an acute illness caused by parasites that are transmitted to humans by the bites of infected mosquitoes, called “malaria vectors.” Symptoms typically appear 10 to 15 days after the infecting mosquito bite. The initial symptoms — fever, headache and chills — may be mild and difficult to attribute to malaria. If not treated within 24 hours, malaria can progress to a severe and often fatal condition. When properly treated, the infected person recovers within a few days.
Stéphanie, as her mother explains, “was treated with medicinal plants and seemed cured. However, her attending physician informed us that the malaria germ remained in her body and migrated to attack her nerve cells.”
The drive to end malaria
In April 2000, an African summit was held in Abuja to launch the “Roll Back Malaria” initiative. WHO and African countries made a commitment to cut malaria deaths in half in Africa.
Togo’s commitment to the Roll Back Malaria initiative comes in the form of three big measures to control the disease: prevention, access to diagnosis, and cure.
To implement these measures, the country regularly organizes national campaigns to share long-lasting insecticide-treated nets, or bed nets. These nets are hung over beds to protect people from infected mosquitos. The latest drive, carried out in 2020, helped ensure that everyone who needed a bed net had one. Other measures include providing free rapid diagnostic tests for malaria and free treatment of severe cases with Artesunate and Artemether injection, in public health centers.
All these measures, financed by the Global Fund (a fund to which WHO and UNICEF belong), have borne fruit. According to the 2019 World Malaria Report, malaria incidence in Togo declined by more than 25% between 2015 and 2018 and mortality declined by 8% over the same period.
The current global plan aims to eliminate the disease by strengthening universal access to malaria control interventions. The COVID-19 pandemic made the campaign’s work more difficult, but governments and other partners are pressing onward.
In his message for World Malaria Day 2021, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, urged countries not to abandon efforts to defeat malaria: “Let us not forget the millions of people around the world who continue to suffer and die from this disease.”
Little Stéphanie was back at home one month after going to the hospital. She can now laugh and play again. The fight goes on for more people to survive malaria. Or better yet, never to have known it at all.
Story written by Nadietou Zibilila. Editorial support by Paul VanDeCarr, Development Coordination Office. To learn more about the work of the United Nations Country Team in Togo please visit: Togo.UN.org.