The Buzz About Malaria and Food Security

Volunteer Anna hands out bed nets to a line of Malawians.
By Anna Vecchi
Dec. 5, 2017

I spent the majority of my two-year Peace Corps service in Uganda fighting the spread of malaria. After finishing my service, I knew I had started a mission that I wasn’t done with yet.

Now, as a third-year Response Volunteer serving as Malawi’s National Malaria Coordinator, it is my job to raise awareness about malaria prevention and to highlight the great efforts of those Volunteers who are working toward a malaria-free Malawi, while also partnering with major organizations that are fighting malaria globally.

One of the most challenging aspects of this position is that many people do not think that malaria is a cross-sectoral problem. I am always looking for ways to insert malaria education into literacy lessons, environment clubs, or farming co-ops. What people often do not realize is that malaria affects every part of an infected person’s life—from health, to education, to the economic development of their home country.

To combat this, I regularly try to link seemingly outside issues to malaria to show how this disease is not only a scientific challenge, but an economic challenge that is intrinsically linked to poverty. In my opinion, one of the most important cross-sectoral links is malaria and food security.

A female Volunteer holds a sign saying she will fight food insecurity by fighting malaria
Food insecurity and malaria are linked

I frequently watch and share a TED Talk by Sonia Shah about the three reasons we still haven’t gotten rid of malaria. Sonia asks the question why malaria is still around after thousands of years of humans fighting this disease. The answer: because malaria is complex and it is a multi-faceted problem.

Sonia says it best:

“So there’s a huge scientific challenge, but there’s a huge economic challenge too. Malaria occurs in some of the poorest and most remote places on Earth, and there’s a reason for that. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to get malaria. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to live in rudimentary housing on marginal land that’s poorly drained. These are places where mosquitoes breed. You’re less likely to have door screens or window screens. You’re less likely to have electricity and all the indoor activities that electricity makes possible, so you’re outside more. You’re getting bitten by mosquitos more.”

In many malarious countries, like Uganda and Malawi, malaria strikes the hardest during harvest season. Farmers are home sick with a fever when they need to be harvesting their crops. If farmers cannot collect their crops, they cannot sell it, which means they will be making less money for their harvest and have less food to put on the table for themselves and their families. Malaria inhibits agricultural productivity because the ill-health or the premature death of farmers leads to the aforementioned decreases in farm output or crop production.

A male and female Volunteer stand with a male Ugandan counterpart and deliver a lesson about malaria to a group of about twenty people under the shade of a tent.
Malaria lessons

Not only does malaria decrease agricultural output, it also increases financial insecurity. When a person in a family is sick, the money that would usually go to food, shelter, or education is spent on malaria treatments, travel to and from the clinic, and hospital bills. Even more money is spent on funerals as malaria rips apart families, villages, and communities. Malaria is an economic burden that decreases wellness and economic growth. When most of a person’s earnings are spent on the treatment or consequences of malaria, there is little left to buy nutritious foods or adequately provide for a family.

Malaria has the highest burden among children under 5 and pregnant women—these are also the groups that are most affected by poor nutrition. Malnourished individuals are more likely to get severe malaria and get it more often. The cycle is burdensome, malicious, and deadly. Well-nourished people, especially children, are better able to fight malaria. Less malaria means people can work their fields more consistently, with better harvest and greater financial and food security.

The answer is not an easy one. It is a multifaceted problem with an equally complex solution. Malaria is most entrenched in the poorest countries in the developing world. Eliminating this disease will directly help countries lift themselves out of extreme and chronic poverty, eradicate malnutrition, and improve maternal and child health.

Understanding the complexity of malaria is important when thinking about eradication. The solution is not cheap, it’s not easy, and it often depends on many factors. Once we recognize that the challenges in most developing countries are intimately linked, we will be able to combat things like malaria and food insecurity in a much more holistic way.  

Health Volunteer Anna smiles next to a field of grape vines.

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