There is no gainsaying the fact that malaria has since become the major killer disease on the African continent, recording great casualties among pregnant women and children in particular.
Available statistics indicate that of the 300 million malaria cases recorded worldwide annually, 90 per cent occur in Africa, while 60 per cent of Nigerians who seek medical attention are those seeking medical treatment for malaria.
It was for this reason that governments at all levels in Nigeria are desirous of having a malaria-free society by ensuring that malaria is no longer a major health problem.
Gombe State is not left out in the scheme of things, as its Malaria Control Booster Project (MCBP) has commenced preparations for the distribution of “Longer Lasting Insecticide Treated Mosquito Nets’’.
As part of the preparations, a one-day workshop was organised for journalists in the state on the nets’ distribution exercise, which is scheduled to hold between June 16 and June 19.
The workshop’s organisers, apparently aware of the unique public sensitisation roles of the media, used the occasion to solicit the journalists’ support in sensitising people at the grassroots to the importance of using the nets.
The MCBP Project Manager, Dr Abel Arnold, says that a total of 1,034,860 nets would be distributed to about 517,432 households across the state during the exercise.
He stresses that the use of insecticide treated bed nets is a potent way of preventing malaria, particularly among pregnant women and children.
Arnold, however, laments that due to the ignorance of most people, particularly those in the rural areas, the people are still not using the nets, even if they are provided free-of-charge.
“The aim of the nets’ distribution exercise is to ensure that at least 80 per cent of households in Gombe State own at least two nets each by December 2010.
“We hope that this measure, along with many others taken, would translate into a reduction in the number of cases of deaths due to malaria by half, as compared to the year 2000 baseline figures by the end of 2010,’’ he says.
Arnold says that this is not the first time that such an exercise will be conducted, noting that 182,293 insecticide treated nets were distributed to five of the state’s 11 local government councils in 2008.
He adds that the forthcoming exercise will cover the entire state.
Arnold reiterates that the role of journalists in educating the people about the desirability of using the nets cannot be over-emphasised.
“Some people have turned the nets into gift items; they just keep the nets in their boxes and whenever a relation or neighbour’s wife gives birth to a baby, they give the nets out.
“Unfortunately, the longer the nets stay without being used, the more the insecticide in them becomes ineffective and the nets will no longer serve the intended purposes,’’ he says.
Apart from the non-usage of the nets, some people may be unwittingly using the nets for other purposes. Arnold says he could not rule out the possibility of some people using the nets for “fishing’’.
He says that such abuses underscore the need for aggressive public enlightenment campaigns before the commencement of the nets’ distribution.
Malam Mohammad Babagana, the MCBP’s Logistics Officer, says that a recent survey indicated that only 12 per cent of households in the country owned mosquito nets, while only 2 per cent of the net owners were using them appropriately.
“This was what brought about the idea of the universal distribution of the nets, targeting 100 per cent of households in the country.
“To catch up with this target, we have to initiate the mass distribution of the nets. After that, we intend to sustain the tempo through our normal distribution system,’’ he says.
Babagana says that the nets’ distribution will be preceded by a household registration exercise to determine the number of households in the state and check the tendency to collect the nets twice.
Observers, nonetheless, stress the need to ensure a smooth nets’ distribution this time around.
They say that in the past, the nets were distributed in the state as incentives during the polio immunization exercises, recalling that there were instances when some armed miscreants stole the nets from health officials and carted them away.
However, the MCBP gives the assurance that such ugly incidents will not recur, as efforts have been made to provide adequate security cover for the exercise.
Malam Mohammad Abdu, the MCBP’s Monitoring and Evaluation Officer, says that some policemen and other security agents will be deployed to every distribution centre, while only women will be allowed to collect the nets on behalf of the households.
“In essence, only women will be allowed to visit the centres. Any youth seen there will be treated as a ‘security risk’ and he either must offer satisfactory explanations for coming there or be arrested,’’ he says.
However, the arrangement has drawn sharp criticisms from bachelors, as one of them, Malam Ya’u Waziri, a Gombe-based journalist, wonders if bachelors do not have a right to benefit from the health programme.
“They say only households are entitled to the nets and that only females within the households are mandated to receive the nets.
“What about those of us who are still single? We have houses but no women to receive the nets on our behalf,’’ he says.
In spite of such dissents, Abdu insists that only women will be allowed to collect the nets, stressing that that the measure is being adopted to avert the recurrence of the ugly incidents recorded during previous exercises.
Alhaji Saidu Gadam, the Director of Information in the state Ministry of Information, reminds the gathering that public awareness campaigns are vital for things to be on course.
“We have a social responsibility on our part as journalists to educate the people, not only to obtain the nets but make use of them in the appropriate manner.
“Journalists are also expected to monitor the implementation of the programme, particularly in the rural areas. They should come up with feedbacks to the appropriate authorities on what is going on, so as to make amends where necessary,’’ he says.
But how prepared are the journalists for this public sensitisation activity?
Miss Hajara Leman of the News Agency of Nigeria says that as a future mother who is always disturbed by the alarming rate of malaria-induced infant and maternal mortality, the workshop has prepared her to put in her best in the public awareness activity.
Auwal Ahmed of the People’s Daily pledged to be committed more than ever before in enlightening the people about ways of tackling the menace of malaria.
“My wife has just given birth to a baby girl and I would not like to see her suffer from malaria, hence the need to educate people on activities capable of breeding mosquitoes and, by extension, spreading malaria,’’ he says.
Alhaji Aliyu Hamagam of the Media Trust, however, suggests that the involvement of journalists in the exercise should not begin and end with the workshop.
He stresses the need to involve the journalists in the entire programme implementation.
All the same, observers warn against politicising the exercise unduly, adding that such attitudes would only frustrate the good intentions behind the anti-malaria programme.
They also call for the provision of adequate logistics to aid the distribution exercise, while putting in place a mechanism to check the diversion of the nets.
They note that in the past, such nets which are meant to be distributed free, found their way to the markets in spite of the clear inscription on them indicating that they were not for sale.
They recommend that if such aberration occur again, efforts should be made to trace the masterminds and punish them to serve as a deterrent to others.
Abdullahi writes for NAN