Malaria's Lessons

Malaria's Lessons

by Varsha Mathrani, MPH '04

In May 2012, eight years after completing my MPH, I traveled to Uganda with the noble intention of serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. After ten weeks of training, and getting sworn in as a community health volunteer, I moved to the small town of Bugiri to start life with a new community for two years. Within a week of arriving, I fell sick with malaria. After three days of being nearly bed-ridden in Bugiri and a week of medical treatment in Kampala, I resigned from the Peace Corps and flew home to the United States to recover. I felt like I'd had a brush with death.

I did not imagine the toll disease would take on my body—nor did I imagine how much it would teach me. As Charles Fritz notes in his book Disasters and Mental Health, "Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and future, because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate, moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs within the context of the present realities."

So does illness. It was a challenging and humbling experience to face the simple and raw truth of mortality, to feel fear and doubt, to accept both my strengths and weaknesses. I now know the feeling and can identify with others who face—and have faced—this disease.

I am touched by the many kindnesses I received from "strangers." In Bugiri, my Ugandan family treated me as one of their own and later e-mailed me from across the miles. In Kampala, a Canadian neighbor at a guesthouse where I stayed bought me yogurt while I was sick, as my medication needed to be taken with fatty food. I am touched by the prayers and wishes of fellow volunteer friends in my training class, including some nurses whose skills and compassion helped play a part in the healing process.

At one point, I wished that life could always be like this. But later I realized I didn't need such loving, attentive care all the time, because it is always implicitly there in society at large—not all the time, but in very important ways.

As my illness faded, I found that it had made me fiercer—less willing to waste my time and more urgent about what mattered. I know that despite pain and hardship, I have grown spiritually and mentally from this experience. I'm learning to recognize and appreciate those who have created pathways where I can learn in my life. As an African proverb says, "He who learns, teaches; he who teaches, learns."

mosquitoBy the Numbers: Malaria's Global Toll

  • 4: Number of parasite species that cause malaria in humans.
  • 65: Approximate percentage of global malaria fatalities that occur in children under 15 years old.
  • 90: Percentage of all malaria deaths that occur in Africa.
  • 660,000: Estimated number of deaths worldwide from malaria in 2010.
  • 66,000,000: Estimated number of long-lasting insecticidal nets (LLIN) delivered to endemic countries in sub-Saharan Africa in 2012, down from a peak of 145 million nets in 2010. A decrease in LLIN coverage is likely to lead to major resurgences in the disease.
  • 219,000,000: Estimated number of cases of malaria worldwide in 2010.
  • 5.1 billion: Estimated dollar amount needed every year between 2011 and 2020 to achieve universal access to malaria interventions.

Source: WHO World Malaria Report 2012