President Obama has been in Kenya, and I am rather glad that this visit did not happen when I lived in the country. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the spectacle of an American flying in, making rapturously received speeches, and then flying out again. It all smacks too much of cultural imperialism. As for all the talk of the fight against corruption and the struggle for gay rights, goodness, anyone who knows the Kenyan situation will be struck by the huge ironies involved.
Mr Obama’s visit to Kenya will change very little, but another news story emerging last week will perhaps make a significant long term impact on not only Kenya but many other African countries as well. It seems that, after thirty years, we are quite close to rolling out a malaria vaccine. As the report makes clear, this vaccine is by no means perfect yet, but it could be a game-changer.
The malaria parasite “travels” through the female anopheles mosquito. Malaria used to be endemic in many countries, such as Italy and the United States, and once even in England (there is some evidence that Oliver Cromwell may have died of it.) It was eradicated in such countries through the draining of swamps and marshes and the strict use of mosquito nets, a combination of public works and public education.
Sadly, such campaigns have not made much of an impact in Africa. In places such as Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, there are breeding grounds aplenty for the mosquitoes, and people do not use the nets which NGO’s provide to the extent hoped. The result is that children die in huge numbers, and adults too are often chronically unwell. Moreover, one group that could make a difference to the local economy stays away: tourists. Visitors from abroad can take anti-malarial prophylactics, but these cost money, and often have side effects. Moreover, many people simply do not like taking them, sometimes with catastrophic results. It is not unheard of for visitors to return from Africa and die from malaria because they failed to take their pills. African destinations are at a disadvantage because of the perceived threat of malaria.
The city of Nairobi is at a high elevation and is thought to be malaria free as a result, though some think that this is changing. Other African cities must be hotspots for malarial infection. It’s not good for tourism, and it’s not good for business. A vaccine would mean the removal of a serious break on development, quite apart from being a matter of huge relief to the resident population.
The saddest thing in this whole matter is that amid all the talk of development and the menace of global warming, the struggle against malaria has really not made much progress in Africa, even though the means are not beyond our reach, namely nets, and the destruction of mosquito breeding grounds. If President Obama had told everyone in Kisumu (his father’s homeland, after all) that they should only sleep under a mosquito net rather than lecturing them on other issues, he might have done some lasting good. Last time he came to Kenya, when he was still only a presidential candidate, he took an AIDS test, in order to dispel the stigma attached to the disease. That showed real leadership.
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