Zimbabwe: fighting Malaria near the mighty Zambezi River

By Foster Matyatya in Victoria Falls and Tapiwa Gomo in Harare
A new day has begun for thousands of people living with HIV, orphans and vulnerable children since they received mosquito nets under the World Swim for Malaria donation by Zimbabwe Red Cross Society in Hwange district, about 900 kilometres south-west of the capital, Harare.

The distribution is a result of the partnership between the International Federation and a London-based charitable Foundation, World Swim for Malaria (WSM) to provide life-saving, long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLIN) to families in 17 communities in nine East and Southern Africa countries: Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

As news of the mosquito nets distribution filtered through the communities in Hwange district, people started heading to the Chinotimba Old Peoples' Home, where the Zimbabwe Red Cross started the distribution as early as 8am. The attendance was overwhelming in this area which lies adjacent to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls, on the giant Zambezi River.

"Many people in this area have suffered from malaria at one time or another. Hwange is a high malaria zone where cases of malaria are reported throughout the year, including the winter season," says Sibanda, the Zimbabwe Red Cross official.

More than 4,000 people attended the donation of the nets to the orphans and people living with HIV. A total of 1,500 nets were handed out to the beneficiaries. The donation brought hope to hundreds of people living with HIV and to orphans who constantly live in fear of catch malaria.

Bernard Moyo, one of the beneficiaries, could not hide his joy after collecting his net as he told his story. "I was tested for HIV three years ago at a New Start Center and I was found positive. I am now under the Zimbabwe Red Cross home-based care programme," says Bernard. "I am very happy to receive a mosquito net. It will go a long way in reducing mosquito bites, which reduces my chances of suffering from malaria," he added.

It was also all smiles for Dorothy Kapuya, 67 years old, who lives in Chinotimba Township and looks after her 27-year-old son. Her son is also currently under the Red Cross home-based care programme. "Since my son's health deteriorated, I was always concerned that he might catch malaria, and then his health was going to be in danger. With this donation, we can sleep easily and safely under the mosquito nets. Malaria is very deadly," she explained.

Before the distribution started, the Zimbabwe Red Cross and Ministry of Health officers organized health education talks to teach communities malaria control and prevention and encourage people to buy mosquito nets, especially those who were not part of the programme. Other preventative methods, such as wearing protective, long-sleeved clothing during the night and spraying were also emphasized. The communities also learnt about the signs and symptoms of malaria and the importance of seeking treatment very early on.

Though not everyone could receive the nets, the donation marked a turning point. There is now high demand for nets in Hwange as other community members are asking for them.

According to a Ministry of Health official, malaria cases were reported all year round in Victoria Falls. Though the country had adequate drugs to treat malaria, the ministry official believes prevention is more effective than cure. "A total of 650 cases were diagnosed with clinical malaria in June while 500 cases were reported in July," said Sister Lunga, who is in charge of the Chinotmba Clinic.

World Swim for Malaria, a simple grassroots initiative, took place between December 2005 and June 2006. A quarter of a million people in more than 150 countries swam, splashed, had fun and raised funds in what was the world's largest-ever participatory swim. Who would have thought that such an initiative would one day touch the lives of thousands of people in areas as remote as Hwange and Mount Darwin, north-east of Zimbabwe, where another distribution of 1,500 nets took place.

The distribution there was attended by Ministry of Health and Child Welfare officials, community leaders, and representatives from the National AIDS council, the Department of Social Welfare, support groups and theatre groups. Soon after the demonstration, the volunteers made a follow-up visit to the homes of those who had received the nets to ensure that the nets were properly hung and to assist the elderly to hang the nets.

Officials here are also planning to complement this Red Cross/World Swim for Malaria initiative by carrying out a campaign before the start of the rainy season to promote malaria prevention initiatives and ensure proper usage of the nets.

But for now, as the water thunders from the deep gorge of the falls and as the mosquitoes buzz in the warm and humid nights of the Zambezi Valley, people living with HIV, orphans and vulnerable children can enjoy serene, easy and safe nights.