Everyone has experienced it – the buzzing sound of mosquitoes interrupting a restful night's sleep. In Indonesia's Aceh province, the hardest-hit area of the 2005 catastrophic tsunami, mosquitoes are more than just an annoyance. They carry a deadly disease—malaria.
The American Red Cross and its partners have teamed up to combat this potentially lethal, but preventable disease. As part of its ongoing tsunami recovery efforts, the American Red Cross is working with the Indonesian Red Cross Society (Palang Merah Indonesia or PMI), UNICEF, provincial and district health offices and more than a dozen others to support the “Aceh Bebas Malaria” (Malaria Free Aceh) campaign.
The goal of this recently launched project is to distribute 880,000 insecticide-treated bed nets by the end of 2006 and to educate residents in the prevention and treatment of malaria. Campaign efforts already have shown positive results with more than a 73 percent drop in infection rates in some targeted areas following initial education activities and bed net distributions.
Immediately following the tsunami, the American Red Cross and its partners on the ground recognized the risk posed by malaria and other diseases amid the tenuous, post-disaster conditions.
“After the tsunami, parts of Aceh were filled with standing water, a breeding ground for malaria,” said Dr. Sharmila Shetty, a health delegate for the American Red Cross in Indonesia. “An outbreak was expected, but through the concerted efforts of the local health departments and partnering health and humanitarian organizations, an outbreak was averted. But, the danger still persists.”
With more than 25,000 cases of malaria identified in Aceh in 2005, the “Malaria Free Aceh” campaign seeks to achieve positive, long-term results through confirmed methods of malaria control, such as the distribution and use of long-lasting, insecticide-treated bed nets. A low-cost and highly effective method of disease control, insecticide-treated bed nets can last for at least four years and require minimal maintenance and cleaning.
Teams from the American Red Cross and PMI have distributed 5,000 bed nets already in high-risk areas of Lhoong and Pulo Aceh.
“Insecticide-treated bed nets [when used in malaria prevention] are proven to reduce morbidity and mortality among at-risk populations, especially among pregnant women and children under five,” said Shetty.
In malaria-prone regions, people are aware of the danger of infection, but preventative measures – like repellant, aerosol sprays and window screens – are often inadequate. Since the mosquitoes that carry malaria typically strike at night, bed nets are an invaluable tool for malaria prevention and an essential component in “Malaria Free Aceh” campaign efforts.
“I am happy to have these new bed nets for my family,” said Harlena, a mother from Lhoong. “My children are ages five, four and two, and have all asked that we put the nets up tonight before we go to sleep. We are very thankful to have them.”
For families like Harlena's living in these areas, health education and awareness is another important aspect of the “Malaria Free Aceh” campaign effort. Many of these educational activities are carried out by PMI, whose members have close ties to local communities.
“PMI volunteers are playing an important role in helping people understand directly about preventing malaria and the benefits of using a bed net,” said Dr. Lucas Tobing, a health program assistant for the American Red Cross in Indonesia. “They educate and train the local people about the disease and show them how to use the nets. The distribution of the nets could not have happened without them.”
In recent weeks, Tobing, an Indonesian native, has led American Red Cross and PMI teams in distributing bed nets to more than 45 Aceh communities, while engaging residents in a variety of malaria awareness activities. For instance, local children have been taught to perform dramas like “The Naughty Mosquito” that explain the dangers of malaria and the importance of using bed nets in a way that appeals to a younger audience. The children can then bring these ideas home to their parents, passing along important lessons in malaria prevention.
As part of their ongoing capacity-building efforts, the American Red Cross and PMI teams are training local “kaders” (health representatives) to promote malaria awareness and education in communities and to encourage bed net usage among residents. “Pos mal des” (village malaria posts) will be opened in the coming months where villagers can receive free malaria treatments from a trained kader.
“Malaria was a year-round endemic in Aceh, before and after the tsunami, so it’s not unfamiliar to local people. But they knew how to treat it rather than prevent it,” said Tobing. “This program will have a very big impact in changing that.”
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