The group Kenya Ni Mimi meets with another youth initiative to explain the mandate, goals, and objectives of their campaign against malaria. Photo by: KenyaNiMimi011 via Twitter

As a malaria survivor raised in rural Kisumu, Kenya — a malaria hot spot — I have experienced the devastating impacts of the disease.

For the majority of my childhood, I lived with my grandmother in the remote village of Gagra in Kisumu’s Siaya County. My family and I were constantly bitten by mosquitoes and frequently developed malaria, which not only affected our health but undermined our productivity and ability to attend school.

Each time I fell ill, I would experience a range of miserable symptoms, including increased body temperature, sweating, recurring fevers and headaches, nausea, fatigue, loss of appetite, joint pain, and muscle weakness. My grandmother would boil herbal plant leaves and let me drink the water; this briefly reduced the severity of my discomfort.

Unfortunately, some of my friends and relatives lost their lives to this disease at a very young age. A lack of medical professionals, health care facilities, antimalarial drugs, and insecticide-treated bed nets contributed to the high number of malaria infections and deaths in my community.

In most African countries, decisions around malaria interventions are currently made without youth consultation. This needs to change.

Our village did not have sufficient health care facilities or trained health care professionals. We only had one certified nurse in the community, and the only available medical clinic in the village was located 10 kilometers away from our homestead. Poor road conditions made it impossible to quickly access these services during emergencies.

Having experienced the devastating impacts of malaria, I developed a passion for science to better understand this disease and contribute toward the development of effective antimalarial therapeutics. Today, I’m passionately engaged in the fight to defeat malaria for good.

There has been significant global progress in the battle against malaria over the last two decades. Antimalarial drugs and surveillance efforts, among other measures, have helped avert 7.6 million deaths since 2000 and have helped reduce malaria transmission in many endemic countries. Unfortunately, Kenya and most other countries in sub-Saharan Africa are not yet free of malaria.

The lack of a highly effective malaria vaccine, insufficient funding for research and development, and lack of cohesive community engagement are among the obstacles that continue to stand in the way.

Youths are one of the hardest-hit populations that malaria impacts. In 2019, the World Health Organization’s Africa region accounted for 94% of the 409,000 total malaria deaths around the world. About two-thirds of all malaria deaths were among children under 5 years old.

Malaria is responsible for as many as half of all missed school days in affected areas, and many children with repeated malaria infections go on to earn half the income of those without. Although I endured multiple malaria infections, my drive and ambition for championing the fight against malaria has given me a purpose to make a difference through science, advocacy, and leadership.

Malaria is robbing Africa of its future leaders by taking our lives and stealing our opportunities to realize our dreams. But we are fighting back. It is up to us to deliver a malaria-free world for the next generation.

In most African countries, decisions around malaria interventions are currently made without youth consultation. This needs to change. A recent survey found that 9 in 10 African youths want to take personal action in the fight against malaria, with almost two-thirds believing the disease can be eliminated in their lifetimes.

But we can’t do it alone. To support our generation to lead the charge against malaria, we are calling for meaningful inclusion of youths in malaria leadership, research and development, policymaking, and advocacy. This must be matched by increased funding and political commitment towards public health education to foster young leaders’ ambition for a world without malaria.

These commitments can have both immediate and long-term impacts. Early malaria education can help amplify the success of malaria elimination and control programs. Well-informed youths also serve as excellent grassroots mobilizers, such as the Nothing But Nets malaria champions and the Pamoja Kenya Mentorship Alliance.

Successful control of malaria requires extensive community empowerment and engagement. This cannot be done without engaging a group that makes up 75% of nearly 1.2 billion African people. Our leaders must engage youths at all levels — from local communities to high-level global meetings — to help shape the current malaria fight, while simultaneously training the malaria leaders of tomorrow.

Kenya has made important strides to provide youths with the tools we need to drive our own futures. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s commitment to youth engagement has helped create programs such as Kenya Ni Mimi, which empowers youths to occupy leadership spaces. The African Leaders Malaria Alliance has also formed the ALMA Youth Army to create a broader social movement to fight malaria and expand universal health care.

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the African Union have recently created youth advisory councils. And now the RBM Partnership to End Malaria has created a youth workstream to provide an opportunity for youths to help end malaria. If sustained, these efforts can serve as excellent platforms for current leaders to engage youths, and should be an example to the global malaria community.

Africa’s youths make our continent a powerhouse of potential for future economic growth and innovation. We are the decision-makers, scientists, public health professionals, and advocates of the generation that will end malaria for good. However, this potential can only be manifested when we are provided with the necessary tools and opportunities for growth.

Youths are yearning for support and meaningful representation at all levels. It is time for governments to implement policies that ensure and strengthen our inclusion in this fight for our future.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Winter Okoth

    Winter Okoth is the founder at Pamoja Kenya Mentorship Alliance and a devoted malaria champion for Nothing But Nets, a United Nations Foundation malaria advocacy campaign. Winter earned her double-major bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry from Thomas More University and a Master of Science degree in molecular microbiology and immunology from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.