Kenya Red Cross Mobilizes 10,000 After Malaria Outbreak

July 18, 2002
By Chris Tomlinson
The Associated Press

Nairobi, Kenya - The Kenyan Red Cross said Saturday that it has mobilized 10,000 volunteers to help fight a malaria epidemic in the western highlands that has killed more than 300 people and infected 158,000.

The rare outbreak of the mosquito-borne parasitic disease in the highlands, where people are neither prepared nor have resistance, has been caused by unseasonably warm and wet conditions. The effect has been devastating, Kenyan officials said.

"Most of the deaths are occurring because patients are not seeking early treatment," Mary Kuria, acting director of the Kenyan Red Cross, said. "Volunteers are now conducting a door-to-door education and awareness campaign to advise the community on symptoms and the importance of early treatment and prevention."

Kuria said the society was also distributing food, mosquito nets and water purification tablets to residents of the six districts hardest hit by the epidemic, as well as tents, cots and tarpaulins to overcrowded hospitals.

On Thursday, Medical Services Minister Maalim Mohamed told parliament that 294 people have died from malaria and more than 150,000 others have been infected by the disease since early June.

The Red Cross said Saturday that number continues to grow.

Meanwhile, Kenya's Public Health Minister Prof Sam Ongeri defended his ministry "from accusations of laxity in containing the current outbreak of highland malaria in parts of Nyanza and Rift Valley provinces" the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation reported Monday. Ongeri told the broadcasting company that "his staff had done everything possible to minimize the spread of the disease," the KBC reported on a transcripted Web site.

"Last week, the Kenya Medical Research Foundation Director Dr Davy Koech accused the ministry of failing to monitor the spread of the disease," the KBC reported. Ongeri put the death toll of the Kenyan outbreak at 304, but denied any wrongdoing on the part of his ministry.

"He said that his ministry was collaborating with other stake holders in the health sector to provide treated mosquito nets to the most vulnerable segments of the population including pregnant mothers and those with children below five years," the KBC reported.

Mosquitoes in East Africa's highlands normally don't spread malaria because of cold temperatures. Without sufficiently warm temperatures, the malaria parasite doesn't develop inside the mosquito enough to be transmitted when the insect bites.
But when the weather is warmer and wetter than normal, the parasite does have time to develop. And people living in the highlands, who have neither developed immunity nor taken precautions, are easily infected.

Hundreds of people were killed during Kenya's last outbreak of highland malaria in 1998.