Malaria by the numbers: are the statistics real or are they a barrier to community involvement?

George Mwinnyaa grew up in a small village in Ghana, West Africa. “I witnessed the death of several people including my siblings and my father. I became a health volunteer and later a community health worker.” George presented at the Johns Hopkins University TEDx event on 10 March 2018. Below are excerpts from that talk focused on his experiences in malaria interventions in Ghana and reflects on numbers found in public health interventions and questions what these numbers really mean to community members on the ground. George is currently an MHS student studying infectious disease epidemiology at the JHU Bloomberg School of Public Health.


I have always been very skeptical with numbers, particularly numbers that indicate program accomplishments from the developing world. Whenever I see numbers reporting a problem such as the mortality relating to malaria, Pneumonia, or diarrheal diseases- it puzzles me because these are all diseases that have received great attention, and there have been many interventions implemented. Yet these problems still exist, and the question is why?

Today malaria is still among the top causes of infant mortality in many African countries, including Ghana, yet we have mosquito nets, coils, sprays, long sleeved shirts that have been circulating in the country for years……and sometimes I wonder: why?

Total funding for malaria prevention and control was 2.7 billion dollars in 2016. Between 2014-2016, 582 million nets were distributed, of which 505 million were distributed in Africa, yet the number of malaria cases increased from 211 million in 2015 to 216 million in 2016 (WHO-malaria fact sheet, 2017).

I was once a supervisor for the distribution of long-lasting insecticide treated nets in rural communities. The numbers driven world saw big numbers that showed that many pregnant women were not sleeping under mosquito nets and so the solution to solve the malaria problem was to give them mosquito nets.

First, they started out by selling the nets and people would not buy them, then they offered them free to pregnant women and that did not change anything, next they distributed to families in a household and that did not change anything, and finally they implemented what is known as the hanging of long lasting insecticide treated bed nets.

This time we went into a house with a hammer, nails and ropes, and families showed us their bedroom and we hung the net for them. And yet malaria still rules. What happened with the free bed nets is now widely reported across different countries in Africa.
What do the numbers we measure mean to the people they represent?

As an example, there was a man in a small fishing village with seven children. His biggest worry was how to get food for his family. So the world of numbers develops numbers-based interventions, numbers-driven solutions. Reporters found months after the family received the mosquito nets that no one in the family slept under the mosquito nets; instead the man had sown the nets together and used them for fishing to feed his family.

Frustrations abound on both ends of the system, for public health agents and community members. Numbers act as the barrier between the two ends of the “system”, and our goal must be to break the barrier. The numbers that drive interventions can be meaningless to the community people they represent unless we engage the community and learn how our interventions can really help them.

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