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A unique expedition fights malaria in six countries along the Zambezi River

© UNICEF video
Inflatable boats power along the Zambezi River, carrying expedition members who will deliver bed nets and the message that 'prevention is better than cure'.

By Richard Lee

ZAMBEZI RIVER, Zambia, 24 April 2008 – Patricia Mobuku’s 10 children are lucky to be alive. Living beside the Zambezi River, the children have always been plagued by malaria. Fortunately for them, their village is just a short canoe trip across the water from the local clinic and its life-saving supply of drugs.

But Ms. Mobuku, 45, is haunted by the fear that one day her luck will run out, and one of her malaria-infected children will not get treatment in time. That’s why she recently bundled her three smallest children into a canoe and braved the flood-swollen river – hoping that rumours about boats full of insecticide-treated bed nets were true.

“There is a lot of malaria in our village because there are a lot of mosquitoes that live and breed by the river,” said Ms. Mobuku. “A bed net will be very helpful because it will protect my youngest children.”

An extraordinary expedition

Soon, the rumours Ms. Mobuku had heard were confirmed by the engine roar of four small, inflatable boats that powered through the current before beaching next to the community’s collection of canoes. From the boats stepped the members of an extraordinary expedition who are delivering an age-old message: Prevention is better than cure.

© UNICEF video
Insecticide-treated bed nets hang in a clinic to prevent further malarial infection.

Supported by the Roll Back Malaria campaign and sponsored by non-governmental organizations and private companies, the Zambezi expedition aims to navigate the entire 2,500 km length of southern Africa’s longest river.

This is the first time the journey has ever been attempted by boat.

On the way, the expedition will provide bed nets to malaria-ravaged villages in Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The team will also help to focus attention on the disease – still the number-one killer of pregnant women and children under five all along the river.

“We are trying to turn this lifeline of southern Africa into a river of life for those threatened by malaria,” said one of the expedition’s organizers, Helge Bendl. “The Zambezi unites six countries, and by travelling down this river and by highlighting the challenges and successes in the fight against malaria, we hope to play a part in scaling up the response to this disease.”

A results-based approach

A clear consensus on how to fight malaria is now emerging. It is based on an ambitious three-pronged approach, involving longer-lasting insecticide-treated nets, indoor spraying of insecticides and greater access to more effective drug combinations.

Countries also need to cooperate more closely to improve the cross-border links between their local malaria programmes. As the theme of this year’s World Malaria Day on 25 April puts it, this is a ‘disease without borders’.

© UNICEF video
A young child smiles as she receives a life-saving bed net, provided, in part, by the Roll Back Malaria campaign.

Five of the countries along the Zambezi have now joined forces to develop a common strategy to try and reduce overall malaria mortality in riverside communities by 50 per cent.

“It’s not about bringing nets to millions of people because it is mainly an awareness project. And it is making a difference,” said Mr. Bendl. “People along the river are realizing that the river unites them. People in Angola might not think that people in Mozambique have the same problem but they do because they are all suffering from malaria.”

‘One net at a time’

This week, African Ministers of Health are meeting close to Victoria Falls – the single most spectacular site on the Zambezi – to chart the best way forward.

Better treatment will be crucial but there are always likely to be issues over the regular availability of drugs, especially in the poorer and more inaccessible regions.

“Sometimes it is difficult for people in remote areas to get to clinics to get anti-malarial drugs,” said Health Director for Zambia’s southern Sesheke district Sindele Kyanamina. “And sometimes the clinics don’t have the drugs.”

This is why the expedition and affected countries and organizations such as UNICEF are placing so much emphasis on prevention and fighting malaria ‘one net at a time’.

And also why – having watched the team speed off to help other communities further downstream – Patricia smiled as she headed home with her net carefully stowed in the canoe. She knows that her three youngest children will all sleep much more safely from now on.




18 April 2008: UNICEF's Richard Lee reports on the Zambezi expedition to combat malaria in six countries where it is most prevalent.
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