The Faces of Malaria

In my two months in Haiti, I have seen the extremes of malaria. A 20-year-old soccer player unable to walk on his own.  A young woman bound to an ICU bed on a ventilator. And a smiling, bright-eyed eight-year-old girl ready to go home after a week in the hospital.

These are the faces of malaria.

And with World Malaria Day this week, I think it is important to highlight these extremes – the tragedies and success stories – because malaria is something that is both preventable and treatable and yet a million lives are lost every year because of it.  In fact, every 30 seconds, we lose a child somewhere in the world to malaria.

Here in Haiti, the gravity of malaria is all too real.  Just this past week, malaria patients occupied three of the 18 beds in ICU at the University Hospital, where International Medical Corp has worked since January 14.  One of them, a young woman in bed four, was probably the most critical in all of the ICU, her breath broken and strained on the ventilator.

The woman had no family, no home, and was living on the street alone before arriving at the University Hospital in serious condition.  No one knew how long she showed symptoms of malaria before coming to the hospital, but based on her condition in the ICU, it was probably a long time.

“[Your best chance for survival with malaria is to] get tested,” said one International Medical Corps volunteer doctor, looking onto the empty hospital bed.  “The symptoms of malaria are non-specific, so many people wait too long to see a doctor.  If you have daily fevers and weakness for more than a week, get tested.”

This is probably what saved Wilson, 20, who came into the emergency room unable to stand on his own after a week of flu-like symptoms. Like the woman who lost her life in the ICU, Wilson had the most severe form – cerebral malaria, which causes neurological complications that often include convulsion, even coma.

That is why Wilson, an avid soccer player, could not walk or stand on his own.

But after a week of aggressive and patient treatment by International Medical Corps volunteer doctors and nurses, Wilson turned the corner.  When I met him on his eighth day at University Hospital, he was making slow laps around the ICU tent, surrounded by his family and braced by his walker.  Smiling and triumphant – Wilson was getting ready to go home.

I spoke with Wilson this week, just a few weeks after I saw him at the hospital and he told me that he no longer needs a walker and is confident that he will be able to play soccer again soon. “People who have malaria should not feel discouraged – they should take their medicines and see their doctors,” Wilson said.  “I want to thank the people who took care of me.  They did a great job.”

But not everyone is as lucky as Wilson.

This weekend, I went to follow up on the abandoned woman in the ICU.  Her bed was empty, a ghostly void in the center of the room.  She had lost the fight, just two days before World Malaria Day.  “She was really, really sick,” one of the International Medical Corps volunteer told me, looking solemnly onto the empty cot.  “I tried to help her breath, but she was really struggling.”

This woman is one of one million who will die this year because of malaria, a disease that could have an entirely different outcome if more people take efforts to prevent it and seek treatment in time.  “To really tackle malaria, you need a mosquito program,” said the International Medical Corps doctor.  “Long sleeves, bed nets, DEET, and anti-malarials.”

International Medical Corps is working to curb malaria by offering testing and treatment in its primary health clinics in Port-au-Prince, Petit Goave, Leogane, and Jacmel.  As for prevention, International Medical Corps also distributes bed nets and ran public health messaging on malaria through 27 radio stations throughout Haiti with the help of Internews.

According to the CDC, Haiti has some 30,000 confirmed cases of malaria each year, but officials estimate this number to be much higher, somewhere around 200,000.  This year, we all worry that the number of malaria cases could be substantially higher, as thousands are still living in camps with little to no protection from mosquito bites.

Wilson and the woman in the ICU are among the tens of thousands that will be affected by malaria each year.  But it’s important to remember that they are much more than a number.  They all have a face.  They all have a story.  And they should all have a future.

Help us save lives.