Strong family ties help to wipe out malaria

Malaria check
Copyright: Patrick Brown/Panos

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  • Aneityum’s strong social ties help island nation tackle malaria
  • Families pay for drugs and offer prevention tips
  • Governments should involve local communities in malaria projects

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Building strong family and community links should be a vital part of strategies to eliminate malaria in developing countries, a study on a South Pacific island has found.

The paper, published on 31 July in Malaria Journal, documented malaria-elimination efforts that began in 1991 on Aneityum, an island in Vanuatu.

“If people are aware of their knowledge and resources, they will actively engage in decision-making.”

Noriko Watanabe, Osaka City University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan

It found that areas with strong communities have an advantage when it comes to tackling malaria. Health messages are distributed quicker and adhered to more strictly when spread through community sources, such as religious groups and village leaders, the study says.

Close-knit families mean people are more likely to have access to money to pay for malaria treatment, and have less trouble getting lifts and help with reading advice about malaria prevention, the researchers found.

The researchers interviewed Aneityum residents in 2012 to explore the “role of empowerment as a critical element of community engagement”, according to the study.

Aneityum map
Map showing Aneityum Island, Vanuatu where researchers conducted their interview.

Many of the 915 residents on the island, which measures just 160 square kilometres, were directly involved in malaria prevention and control measures, the researchers found. Information about malaria was shared at church services and through school lessons and text messages, for example.

A local health committee oversaw a vector-control programme that included drug distribution, swamp drainage and the use of insecticide-treated nets.

“The existing local social capital on Aneityum continues to foster a strong sense of community among members, which contributes to solving community-identified problems to develop preventive health behaviours,” the study says.

Estimated malaria mortality rates fell by 42 per cent worldwide between 2000 and 2012, according to the World Health Organization. But malaria still caused an estimated 627,000 deaths in 2012, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Noriko Watanabe, lead author and a parasite researcher at Osaka City University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan, says the study’s findings could be broadly applicable around the world.

To encourage engagement on malaria treatment and prevention, Watanabe said governments should focus more on local communities. “If people are aware of their knowledge and resources, they will actively engage in decision-making,” she tells SciDev.Net. 

Rehana Abdus Salam, a maternal health researcher at Aga Khan University in Pakistan who studies malaria treatment, says the findings could be applicable in developing countries with high malaria burdens and existing community-based malaria programmes. 

She says community and family involvement is an “essential component” of malaria-control because measures such as using insecticide-treated nets require behaviour change that must be implemented in households.