A child’s personal experiences with malaria lead to a life career fighting the disease

Gbenga Jokodola tells his story of growing up to fight malaria in Nigeria. Gbenga has a MPH in Field Epidemiology from the University of Ibadan, and a BPharm from Ahmadu Bello University. He is currently working with Malaria Consortium as a Zonal Project Manager on the Seasonal Malaria Chemoprevention (SMC) Project, delivering preventive care to over 400,000 children between the ages of 3 – 59 months in Jigawa and Katsina States of Nigeria. He has worked on several malaria projects over the years sponsored by Unicef, the Global Fund, Catholic Relief Services and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. As he narrates below, his early experiences with malaria were formative of his present focus in life.

At 3 months of age Gbenga was probably still protected from malaria by maternal antibodies and did not realize what malaria held in store for his future

Growing up in Zaria, northern Nigeria in the 70s and 80s was one of the best experience any child could ask for. I lived with my parents in two rented rooms in a compound on one of the streets in Sabon Gari Zaria – a community that had virtually all the tribes in Nigeria and of course, with all the love and communal living you can ever get from a true Nigerian community.

In such loving setting we enjoyed as children, I imagined that mosquito communities also lived around our pit latrine and backyard. I imagined that parent-mosquitoes trained their off-springs very well on how to bite and fly away tactfully, how to dodge the usual clap-like manner we use in killing mosquitoes, which homes to avoid visiting, and so on.

I was reputed to be a strong boy then, one of the few kids who were “strong”; I was a “tough” boy who rarely fell ill to malaria. Then, it was common to hear, “Gbenga is a strong boy”. I ate and slept in any room in our compound – with or without covering from mosquito and was hailed for doing so by my friends who often fall ill to malaria.

Life lesson as a Primary School pupil: There is no immunity against malaria

One day, the “malaria forces” (mosquitoes) taught me a life lesson: Indeed, there is no immunity against malaria.

My local Government primary school rotated school attendance between morning and afternoon every week. As an 8-year-old, while preparing for my afternoon school I suddenly felt very cold and sleepy at the same time and decided to lie down briefly on my senior brother’s 6-spring bed in our sitting room. Shortly after, I was shivering and sweating profusely under 3 of my mother’s wrappers.

Help was not immediately near as most people were out. My head was pounding like I was a piece of yam being pounded with a pestle in my mother’s mortar. My stomach was churning. All the while, I kept saying “I am a strong boy, I will not be sick”! I was in that state for over an hour. I began to wonder if I was strong after all and will not end up dying. I could no longer talk but my teeth were chattering.

Gbenga second from left at about 7 years old in company of Sisters and friends in the compound

Sweating profusely, yet I was cold! I was helpless. It was in this state that one of our neighbor’s daughters walked into our sitting room, wondering if there was any food to eat. Immediately she saw the “strong man” shivering under 3 wrappers, she raised an alarm. Her shout saved me as neighbors immediately rushed into our sitting room. Among them was a relation of the landlord, a beautiful “Aunty” Esther, who was visiting from the Ahmadu Bello University school of Nursing. As soon as she came over, she said: “this is malaria!”.

Aunty Esther immediately organized and rescued me that day; she saved the life of the “strong man”! She quickly sought iced-cold water and toweled my body with my father’s “untouchable” towel hanging on the door of the inner room. Ah, what a good feel it was! She then gave me a sweet syrup which I later found out to be Paracetamol syrup. After about 30 minutes, she returned with a plate of hot rice and stew, encouraging me to eat before treatment with anti-malarial medication. I struggled to eat the rice, angry that I had lost my ever-available appetite! I only took few spoons, amidst the encouragement I received from all present.

I was then given an injection by Aunty Nurse Esther, tucked back into the bed and told to prepare to sleep. She then said, “Gbenga, no school for you today, okay? You even need to get well before you resume school”. Everyone knew I loved school. I had to lose a precious school day (and three more days) to malaria! So, I simply focused on staying alive, wondering which “wicked” mosquito bit me. That was the day I dramatically lost my title of “strong man” to malaria, painfully realizing that I was not immune to malaria at all!

My treatment against malaria was continued with further jabs of the needle (twice a day) over the course of the next 3 days at the Dispensary/Primary Health Unit “Aunty” Esther directed my parents to. I got well and resumed school after the third day. Later, I researched and found out I was treated with a sedative, Chloroquine and Paracetamol.

Gbenga with classmates at First Baptist Church, Benin Street, Sabon Gari Zaria

My parents later introduced “Sunday-Sunday Medicine” (one Sweetened pyrimethamine tablet weekly) against Malaria to our diet on Sundays. With this painful encounter with Malaria, I resolved to fight mosquitoes; I was determined to regain my “strong man” title. I made up my mind to be a community health worker, saving communities from diseases like malaria.

Fast-forward to Year 2007: My new twist in combating Malaria

By the year 2007, my personal malaria episodes had lessened with greater knowledge of the disease. In addition, the application of the preventive, diagnostic and treatment procedures reduced my malaria episodes to about 1 in 3 years. With each episode, I normally use laboratory test (microscopy) to confirm if severity is +, ++, or even +++. Thereafter, I get a prescription from a Physician on appropriate medication to use.

However, while practicing in Abuja, I encountered a tearful case of death from malaria, of an 8-year old beautiful daughter of a colleague. Three days prior to her death, a Community Pharmacist had dispensed anti-malarial medication to her, based on prescription tendered by the father from a Government hospital he had earlier taken her to. The news of her death brought back memories of how I would have died as

ACCESS-SMC Project: Scaling up access to seasonal malaria chemoprevention in the Sahel

an 8-year old from this same Malaria. Yes, this same Malaria! That death of the 8-year old triggered a fresh resolve in me to step up my fight with mosquitoes and combat malaria squarely at community, state, National and global levels.

Still at War with Malaria in 2018

Now armed with post-graduate training in Public Health/Epidemiology and field-based experience, my Malaria diagnosis strategy has now changed. I now use Rapid Diagnostic Test Kits (RDT). If confirmed positive, I receive prescription on the most applicable Artemisinin-based combination Therapy (ACT) to use.

My malaria story continues and will only end when mosquitoes are defeated – when children and adults no longer fall ill nor die from mosquito bites that cause malaria.

You can follow Gbenga on Twitter.

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