Overcoming myths and misconceptions about malaria in Togo

Published: 9 December 2004 0:00 CET

Suzanne Charest of the Canadian Red Cross

As preparations reach their final stages for an unprecedented public health campaign in the small West African country of Togo, one of the greatest challenges has been to educate the population about the true cause of the most common and deadly parasitic disease in the world: malaria.

The campaign to vaccinate almost one million children against measles and polio and distribute an insecticide-treated net (ITN) to every home with a child under the age of five, is being supported by the International Federation and a number of National Societies, among them the Canadian Red Cross. The Canadian International Development Agency has contributed 3.9 million Swiss francs (US$ 3.4 million) to purchase the 730,000 ITNs required for operation.

This is the first time that ITN distribution has taken place in an entire country, on the back of a measles vaccination campaign. Successful pilot schemes have already taken place in Ghana and Zambia.

But distributing the nets is not the end of the story: “It is of the utmost importance to us to first put the emphasis on making the population aware of the true causes of malaria - parasites passed on to humans by mosquitoes who bite them,” said Dr. Antoinette Awaga, Head of the Togolese Red Cross Health Department.

Although sending the message out about how people contract malaria may sound simple, there are many myths and misconceptions about the disease.

“Some people truly believe that they get malaria from exerting themselves too much as they work in the fields,” added Awaga.

“Others may feel that it is related to the consumption of palm oil, which everyone in Togo eats. Another common myth about the disease is that you can get it from ants.”

She says there are not only false assumptions about how the disease is contracted. There are also unfounded fears related to bed nets.

“Some people think they are hot to sleep under or that they might suffocate them,” stresses Awaga. “We have been told that the nets resemble a structure put over dead bodies during burial, which of course makes people afraid of them.”

To counteract these myths and misconceptions, for several months the Red Cross has sent teams of volunteers into the communities hosting the December distributions to spread the word about what really causes malaria and why bed net use is key to preventing malaria.

“Simply emphasizing the cost savings of using the free bed net as opposed to the high cost of malaria medication is sometimes all it takes,” adds Awaga.

Some 4,700 volunteers have gone door to door in the communities, talking about malaria prevention and the upcoming bed net distribution. They’ll even make house calls to remind busy mothers who may have forgotten the date of the event.

Last October and November, radio messages and posters for the integrated campaign were developed and distributed in partnership with the National Society for Information, Education and Communication, the WHO and UNICEF.
“We know that promotion and education are key factors to making this project work,” stresses Awaga.

“We have learned through a previous campaign that highlighted the proper way to take chloroquine, a common malaria medication, that in villages where our volunteers had spoken to people, some 35 per cent more of the population were following the correct methods for taking the drug.”

After the campaign, the next challenge will be to make sure that the nets are used correctly.

“We must ensure that people understand the purpose and importance of the mosquito net,” said Marcy Erskine, Canadian Red Cross Programme Manager in Togo. “We have to demonstrate how to properly hang them and to emphasize regular nightly use by the mothers and children who will be the beneficiaries of this project.”

At a price of about $6.50 per net, this project is extremely cost effective. With the positive reinforcement from Red Cross volunteers, this project will go a long way in helping prevent the deadly disease of malaria from spreading in Togo.