Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nigeria and the Malaria Scourge

The World Bank has once again delivered a damning indictment on Nigeria over the country’s handling of the malaria scourge. Speaking recently during the United Nations special session on the Millennium Development Goals in New York, the Bank’s Group President, Mr Robert Zoellick said Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo account for 30 to 40 per cent of all deaths arising from the disease, adding that it would be difficult to attain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in Africa if malaria was not fought and eliminated in the two countries.
Malaria is a serious health problem. Caused mainly by mosquito bites, it affects mostly children under the age of five and pregnant women in sub-Sahara Africa resulting in a death rate of nearly 3,000 every day. Most countries have successfully fought the scourge and drastically reduced the mortality rates therefrom. A World Health Organization (WHO) statistics shows that out of the 1.2 million people that died from malaria in the world last year, one million were from sub-Sahara Africa, with Nigeria alone recording one third of the cases.
It is baffling that malaria, which has been identified as a scourge in Africa since the pre-colonial era, remains the number one killer more than a century after the continent had contact with modern medicine and about 50 years after most African countries gained independence.
The deleterious damage wreaked by this scourge is not only in its notoriety as the number one killer, but also in the fact that it is responsible for much of the squalor and backwardness in sub-Sahara Africa. It contributes in part to the elusiveness of foreign investments, as many tourists and potential investors shy away for fear of being infected.
The World Bank’s Group President painted a grim picture of the vicious circle created by malaria when he said the disease “preys on the poor and keeps them poor”. He pointed out that “poverty makes many people vulnerable to malaria infection, as they could not afford bed-nets to prevent malaria and medicine to cure it”. He added, “when people are struck by the disease, parents miss work, children miss school, and malaria emergencies plunge families into debt from which they can’t recover”. It’s so pathetic. This is a largely preventable and curable disease. That Nigeria is still listed among the worst malaria-endemic countries in the world ought to be really embarrassing to our leaders. What has happened to the efforts, especially the huge yearly budgetary allocation, to combat the disease and the oft-celebrated insecticide-treated mosquito net scheme? It implies that all past efforts at combating this scourge have not been successful. So, what could have been the problem? It is either we have not been seriously committed to the battle or that our efforts have been continuously sabotaged by an insincere bureaucracy. Either way, what is needed is a renewed commitment on the part of our policy makers to frontally attack this scourge and rout all impediments to total victory.
A first step towards tackling the scourge is to solve the basic hygiene and environmental problems confronting majority of Nigerians. Gutters and drainages in urban centres should be regularly cleared while rural dwellers should be encouraged to always keep their surroundings clean. This would go a long way in dislodging the disease-carrying mosquitoes that breed in those filthy places. With that done, the battle is half won.
Effort should also be doubled at popularising the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets by making it affordable and generally accessible to the majority of the people. The rural poor who are the most vulnerable victims of malaria are mostly neglected.
Malaria drugs should also be made affordable for majority of the people, as most deaths from this disease are due to the victims’ inability to buy prescribed drugs.
So, it will not be out of place to suggest a policy review that will make the treatment of malaria-related ailments free in all government hospitals, as is currently the case with tuberculosis, another killer disease.
One of the reasons for Nigeria’s inability to win the malaria war is, like in the other areas of national development where we have failed in the face of huge yearly resource allocation, our inability to win the war against corruption in high places. Money voted for live-improving projects often finds its way to the private purses of government officials.
We expect therefore that all funds allocated to combat the malaria scourge, including Nigeria’s share of the fresh World Bank’s $1.1 billion grant to tackle the scourge in some African countries, would be judiciously used.