Listening to Malaria

Eating dinner in Kiboko Bay (Hippo Bay) changed my life. Not so much because of what I ate, but because of what ate me. In a restaurant surrounded by signs warning of the dangers of the second deadliest animal in Africa (the hippos that the bay was named after), I was bitten by the single deadliest animal in the world: a malaria-carrying mosquito.

It typically takes 8-25 days for malaria symptoms to appear. Mine took 11 days. By then I was back on the other side of the world, beginning Winter Quarter at UC Santa Barbara. I began to feel sick during my first class. I wrote it off as the jetlag that one experiences when the journey from home back to school takes 34 hours and goes across 10 time zones.

By my next class I knew that it was more than jetlag. I had muscle cramps in my back that made it hard for me to stay in my seat. As my Intro to Foreign Policy professor went through the entire syllabus of the class all I could think was "I know how to read. Shut up and let me go home!" When the class finally ended I walked back to my apartment and collapsed on the couch. I stayed there for about 16 hours.

The Really Bad Week

At some point in the night I noticed the cycle that I had heard so much about. Waves of fever, muscle pain and stomach issues (the nicest way I could put it) caused by parasites invading red blood cells, reproducing and then simultaneously bursting out of the cells, made me realize this wasn't just jetlag and a stomach flu. This was malaria.

I waited it out another day to test my theory (I now realize this wasn't the best idea). Growing up as a missionary kid I knew a lot of people with malaria. I had friends whose campus health clinics in America had quarantined them for presenting any possible tropical disease. I didn't feel like dealing with quarantine, poking, prodding, and questions about my travel history.

But because it was the first week of the quarter at an overcrowded university and I didn't have a doctor's note to excuse me, I had to continue to go to all of my classes or face being dropped. It was a miserable day, but I made it to each of my classes. And when I wasn't any better by the end of it, I called my mom.

She agreed that it sounded like malaria and had some anti-malarials shipped to me. 36 hours later my weak and dehydrated body crawled to the front door to sign for the delivery. By the end of the day I could tell that I was improving but it took a week to recover fully.

That week in my InterVarsity leaders meeting it came time for people to share prayer requests. I casually mentioned my condition, trying not to make a big deal of it, and every person in the room moved back a few inches.

I was angry. Everyone knows that the mosquitos that carry malaria have been long eradicated from the United States and had never existed in the Central Coast of California. But that is the natural reaction here in the United States. We get away, we medicate, we protect ourselves.

A Life-Threatening Serious Inconvenience

We don't need to experience malaria first hand to know that it is a terrible thing. We hear about malaria from people like Bono and Bill Gates. We hear how it takes millions of labor hours and between 600,000 and 1.4 million lives every year. What we hear less about is who dies of malaria.

Malaria cases are best predicted by geography. People in tropical areas around water are at a higher risk of contracting the parasite, no matter the precautions they take. Malaria deaths, on the other hand, are predicted by poverty.

My case of malaria was a really bad week, but without even going to a doctor I was able to recover fully and have never had a relapse. I have other missionary friends who get it pretty often. One friend in rural Kenya counts on losing a week to it every month or two. But while painful and frustrating, malaria is a bearable burden for us. It comes into our well-nourished bodies and fights hard. It knocks us down for a while, but our access to safe, clean water combats dehydration—the most dangerous part of the infection.

The medication that I took, Malarone is the most effective and most expensive on the market. A course of it costs about $40, or a month's wages for some of my friends living in extreme poverty in Nairobi. Without medication the cycle of fever, chills, aches and diarrhea continue until it either works itself out (until it comes back), leaving the body exhausted, dehydrated, malnourished and weakened—or the cycle progresses until death. The reality is that malaria is a serious inconvenience for me, but it threatens the very lives of my friends who live in poverty.

There are many efforts to fight malaria in the developing economies of the global south. Study after study has shown that treated mosquito nets are one of the most effective ways to prevent malaria, but earlier that day in Kiboko Bay I had seen men standing in the lake fishing, using the treated nets donated by NGOs to catch fish. In an economy with few other options, it was more profitable to them to use their nets for fishing than to prevent a potentially deadly infection.

Malaria or Income?

No one should be forced to choose between malaria and an income. Our God has given us the ability to cure malaria, and we should. It can be driven out of Africa much as it was driven out of the United States. However, as nets are distributed, drugs are developed and swamps are drained, let us not ignore the social and economic realities of malaria.

Malaria related deaths are as much a symptom of greater global inequalities as they are a symptom of the infection itself. Our God is the healer of all things. As we seek the Kingdom here on Earth as it is in heaven, let us boldly ask to see both the curing of malaria itself and the injustices malaria illuminates.

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