It’s Time for African Youth to Advance the Fight against Malaria

Mosquito control volunteers in Senegal visit members of their community to count sleeping places for distribution of mosquito nets. Courtesy, President's Malaria Initiative, 2012.  Image: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty
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Mosquito control volunteers in Senegal visit members of their community to count sleeping places for distribution of mosquito nets. Courtesy, President's Malaria Initiative, 2012. Image: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty

Growing up in a rural area near Kisumu, Kenya, I never realized that malaria, one of the world’s oldest and deadliest diseases, was entirely preventable and treatable. It is a threat that my elders have never lived without—but my generation can end it.

More than 90% of the world’s malaria cases and deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria not only affects maternal and child health but political stability, national security and economic growth. Most of us have suffered in one way or another: losing loved ones to the disease as well as missing out on valuable days of school or work. We undeniably are also held back by the indirect effects of malaria on jobs and economic opportunities and the pressure it puts on our health systems.

Malaria affects the young more than the old, with pregnant women and children at greatest risk. So, it’s now our turn to turn the tide against this deadly disease; we can no longer rely on our elders. They have taken us far, with continued investment saving 7 million lives and preventing more than 1 billion malaria cases over the past 20 years. But with progress fragile and reversible and COVID-19 threatening to disrupt essential malaria services, we must keep up the fight to ensure these gains are not lost.

It’s our futures at stake.

In 10 years, we will be the ones sitting at boardroom tables, voting for change, leading our countries. We will be the ones starting families and having children of our own—children at risk of dying from a mosquito bite.

With people under 35 representing more than 75% of all African citizens, our voice can ring the loudest. We have access to the internet and social media, reaching more people than our parents could ever have imagined. We can be activists within our communities, and ensure our views are considered in political decision-making. We must be the ones to lead the conversation, to drive policies and shape our own future.

Today’s youth in Africa are not the youth of 20 years ago. We are increasingly passionate about effecting social change and building the lives we want for ourselves. It may be too late for today’s leaders to see the end of this disease, but it is just the beginning for us.

When we already have access to lifesaving malaria nets, modern medicine, and other innovative tools to combat malaria, I personally cannot stand by and let malaria continue to kill 400,000 people—most of them African children—every year.

Zero Malaria Starts with Me is a pan-African campaign that mobilizes and empowers communities to take ownership over the fight to end malaria. In my role as a youth champion, I am passionate about driving action from governments, the private sector, and community leaders to accelerate malaria prevention and treatment and save lives. Earlier this month, on the sidelines of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, I spoke on a panel alongside global health leaders to ensure young people’s views are considered in malaria policies. I am also delighted that the president of the Republic of Kenya, H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta, who currently chairs the African Leaders Malaria Alliance, has made youth engagement in the fight against malaria one of his top priorities.

Today, I am proud to be able to contribute to the fight against malaria. My tools are advocacy and a passion for science. My goal is to not only better understand the dynamics of the Plasmodium malaria parasites, mosquito vector and the human immune system but also contribute in the development of an effective vaccine and help find new treatments for malaria.

I invite my peers to consider what skills they can offer—perhaps as a health care worker, or by educating your community about the importance of using a mosquito net.

No matter your age or your experience, you have the power to make a difference—and we can be the generation to end malaria once and for all. I have a dream that one day the whole world will be free of malaria—one village, one country, one region at a time!

 

Winter Okoth, ScM, is the founder of the Pamoja Kenya Mentorship Alliance Organization and a devoted Nothing but Nets Malaria Champion, a United Nations Foundation Malaria advocacy campaign. Okoth earned her double major bachelor’s degree (Biology & Chemistry, honors) from Thomas More University, and a Master of Science (ScM) degree in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology from Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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