Kenyan health officials are better prepared for a malaria epidemic thanks to a combination of climate observation and medical research.
With average temperatures rising, East Africa is experiencing outbreaks of malaria in highland areas where there is little experience with the disease. For health planners of the Kenya Ministry of Health Malaria Control Unit, there is a critical need for early warnings of a looming epidemic, to better protect people in affected communities.
Until recently, the highlands were considered an oasis of good health: malarial mosquitoes couldn’t tolerate the average temperatures of 18 degrees Celsius or lower. But highland temperatures have been rising in recent decades. Between 1997 and 1998, average temperatures in Kenya’s highlands were as much as 4 degrees higher than usual due to an occurrence of El Nino. As a result, the incidence of malaria in the area increased 300% over the baseline average for 1995 to 2002. Meanwhile in Tanzania and Uganda, malaria incidence in highland areas increased by 146 and 256% respectively over the baseline.
Researchers led by the Kenya Medical Research Institute are combining climate observation with medical research to improve an existing model of malarial prediction so that local officials can better prepare. In Western Kenya’s Kakamega highlands, blood samples from villagers are used to test the prevalence of malaria in the local population. The findings are matched with data from nearby weather stations to check for links between prevailing climatic conditions and malaria prevalence. With more lead time, health officials can respond with preventive measures such as distributing mosquito nets, and draining or spraying mosquito breeding grounds. They also can have adequate staff and medical supplies on standby to deal with increased caseloads.
Transferring the malaria epidemic prediction model to users in East Africa is a research project led by the Kenya Medical Research Institute, with support from the Climate Change Adaptation in Africa (CCAA) research and capacity development program. A project record on R4D detailing DFID funding of the CCAA is available here
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Githeko, A. K.; Ndegwa, W. Predicting malaria epidemics in the Kenyan highlands using climate data: a tool for decision makers. Global Change & Human Health (2001) 2 (1) 54-63