U.S. Army medical researchers take part in World Malaria Day 2010, Kisumu, Kenya April 25, 2010
On the front line against malaria: Army medical researchers in Kenya mark World Malaria Day 2010
By Rick Scavetta, U.S. Army Africa
KISUMU, Kenya – Hundreds of local people gathered Sunday at Kit Mikayi primary school to mark World Malaria Day 2010 with educational skits, songs and dance.
Among them was Lt. Col. Maria Bovill, director of U.S. Army Medical Research Unit-Kenya’s Kombewa Clinical Research Center – where research into the world’s first phase three clinical trial of a malaria vaccine is underway.
The daylong event offered a great opportunity for the people to share information about the advances of malaria research and reiterate prevention measures with the community, Bovill said.
“This is important for the community where we work, to recognize the advancements in malaria research and prevention,” Bovill said. “I’m proud to be a part of it.”
Crowds danced on the school’s soccer field to live music performed by local musicians who tailored their lyrics to the day’s message – wiping out malaria in Africa. People presented skits to dispel malaria myths and stress preventative measures. Screenings for malaria and HIV were available, as were immunizations and pharmacy prescriptions.
“We all hope that one day this disease will no longer be a reality of everyday life for so many people,” Bovill said, during her remarks at the event.
In the U.S., malaria campaigns over the weekend ranged from photo exhibits to baseball stadiums. In several cities, people slept outside under mosquito nets to raise awareness. Media events were held in Europe, Asia and Africa.
But the front line in the fight against malaria is arguably near Kisumu, along the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya’s Nyanza province. Home to the Luo people, the area is where President Barack Obama’s father came from. Some of Obama’s paternal family still lives nearby. The World Malaria Day event took place a stone’s throw from Kit-Mikayi, a 70-foot tall rock formation sacred to the Luo people.
“We took time to come here today to show our local community that we are dedicated, to be here with them and recognize the fight against malaria,” said Agnes Onyango, who works alongside Bovill at the Kombewa Clinical Research Center. “We let people know that adding vaccine trials to other efforts can work, so malaria stops killing the innocent.”
In a statement released Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a new six-year strategy to combat malaria. The goal is to cut malaria illnesses and deaths by 50 percent in most affected countries of sub-Saharan Africa by 2014.
U.S. Army medical researchers have been combating disease in East Africa for more than four decades. In 1969, Kenya invited the U.S. Army to study trypanosomiasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by the tsetse fly. In 1973, the unit was permanently established in Nairobi, working through an agreement with the Kenya Medical Research Institute.
USAMRU-K has a staff of 12 U.S. Army Soldiers, two Army civilians and over 500 Kenyan contractors – a mix of doctors, nurses, scientists, laboratory technicians and administrative staff who work together to research, test and prevent disease. They collaborate with Kenyan health officials, U.S. civilian and military organizations, private companies and universities, plus nongovernmental organizations and non-profit foundations.
With the establishment of U.S. Army Africa, USAMRU-K is now coordinating its established missions with new Army initiatives on the continent. USAMRU-K, known locally as the Walter Reed Project, is named for U.S. Army Maj. Walter Reed, who in 1900 discovered mosquitoes transmit yellow fever. Now, USAMRU-K efforts are focused on malaria – another disease transmitted through infected mosquitoes.
With U.S. Army Africa Soldiers and U.S. Africa Command service members performing more missions on the continent, USAMRU-K’s role in Africa serves as a model for interaction in Kenya and elsewhere. Additionally, USAMRU-K studies infectious diseases those troops will face in order to determine what force health measures to implement and subsequently, protect the Soldier.
Currently, USAMRU-K is taking part in a vaccine trial that may produce the world’s first malaria vaccine for children. Research participants receive free healthcare for the duration of the three-year study, known to researchers as MAL-55. Later this year, USAMRU-K will undertake another study to gauge the vaccine’s effectiveness specifically in HIV-infected children.
Bovill, an Army dietitian with two-decades in uniform, hails from Raceland, La., a small town roughly 60 miles southwest of New Orleans. In Aug. 2009, she became the head of USAMRU-K’s Muriithi-Wellde Clinical Research Center in Kombewa, just as MAL-55 began.
Fueled by two decades of research, MAL-55 is the first malaria vaccine trial to reach this phase of study. Once proven safe and effective, the vaccine could be marketed to others, she said. The current study is the result of a partnership that includes the nonprofit Malaria Vaccine Initiative and the pharmaceutical company Glaxo Smith Kline.
At Kombewa, 1,000 children, from five to 17 months , already take part. The next step is to find 1,000 more participants as young as six weeks. That means building trust with new mothers in rural villages, who often give birth at home, Bovill said.
“Community relations is very important,” Bovill said. “The key ingredient is our staff of 70 field workers, whom we rely upon to explain the study to local people.”
During World Malaria Day, the study’s field workers – young Kenyans who interact with potential study volunteers from the community – performed a dramatic scene and recited a poem in Luo, before declaring loudly to the disease itself that they were there to “push you out of Kenya, Africa and the whole world.”
Like most people in the community, Calvin Odhiambo, 23, has firsthand experience with the disease. That motivates him as he explains the vaccine research to others.
“Today, we celebrate efforts made together to take initiative, measures to reduce or eradicate malaria – from mosquito nets and drug tests to further vaccine research,” Odhiambo said. “The community here is very optimistic.”
Sometimes people are hard to persuade, which is the reason why public events such as World Malaria Day are so important, said Maureen Ochieng, a 25-year-old field representative who is often going door-to-door to explain the study to mothers of young children.
“To one woman I said ‘go listen to the briefing, see where you end up. She went, understood what she heard and consented. She is now a very cooperative volunteer.”
In a few months, Tom Onyano Oludhe will be a father. The 25-year-old field representative for USAMRU-K's malaria vaccine research grew up hearing of people crippled with polio, a disease he saw eliminated in his lifetime. When he is out in the community discussing the malaria study with potential participants, he often thinks about how his own child may not have to endure the effects of malaria.
“It’s satisfying to know that malaria may one day be out of the question, like measles or polio,” Oludhe said. “Even more satisfying is to know that I was a part of it and how I can tell my children that. I’m privileged. “
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