Malaria epidemics represent a significant public health problem in the highlands of Africa. Many of these epidemics occur in low resource settings, where the development of an effective system for malaria surveillance has been a key challenge. Between 2001 and 2006, the Highland Malaria Project (HIMAL) established a programme to develop and test a district-based surveillance system for the early detection and control of malaria epidemics in four pilot districts in Kenya and Uganda. An innovative feature of the programme was the devolution of responsibility for the detection of epidemics from the central Ministry of Health to District Health Management Teams. The implementation of the programme offered the opportunity to test both the technical aspects of the system and to examine the practical issues relating to the operation of the programme in the context of the existing health system. To investigate the attitude of key staff towards the programme, and their perceptions of its impact on their working practices, interviews were carried out among 52 health staff at district level and in the Ministries of Health in Kenya and Uganda. The transfer of responsibility for the early detection of epidemics to the districts had resulted in perceptions of individual empowerment among district-based staff. This, together with improved support supervision, was a key factor in sustaining motivation and improved surveillance. The enhanced support supervision also produced capacity benefits that extended beyond improved malaria surveillance. However, these improvements occurred in the context of increased logistical support (the provision of transport, fuel and travel allowances) which the participants believed was essential to the functioning of an effective system. With this proviso, the district-based malaria early warning system was perceived to be manageable, effective and sustainable in the context of the current health system.
Social Science & Medicine (2008) 67 (2) 292-300 [doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2008.03.001]