Letter from Africa: Malaria, a bedroom battleground

Chickens inside a vehicle in Lagos, Nigeria - 2013 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Chickens may be key to malaria prevention

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ghanaian writer Elizabeth Ohene considers a dilemma over possible malaria prevention.

About the most exciting news story I have heard in recent times is the report that the scent of chicken keeps malarial mosquitoes away.

I ought to probably declare that I have what might easily be described as an obsession with malaria.

It is not just that malaria happens to be the greatest killer in Ghana and the biggest reason the majority of people go to outpatient departments in hospitals here - I have a personal problem with malaria.

You need to have had malaria to appreciate just how dreadful a disease it is.

Thirty years after my last bout, I cannot forget the fever, the flu-like symptoms, the high temperatures, the chills, the headache, muscle aches, tiredness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea; and that is when you do not have any complications.

To put it mildly, malaria is not a pleasant thing. It is debilitating and it reduces grown men to helplessness and kills the majority of young people in my country.

Elizabeth Ohene:

Image copyright Elizabeth Ohene

"Some have suggested that a monument should be erected for the mosquito because it was deemed to have saved West Africa from the fate of southern Africa and the difficulties that came with the independence struggle"

But some say the presence of malaria in our part of the world has had some advantages in our history.

According to this theory, malaria played a significant role in the spread of colonialism on the African continent.

In the parts of the continent that did not have malaria, Europeans could and did settle.

However, in West Africa they could not and this contributed to an easier liberation struggle when the time came.

Indeed, some have suggested that a monument should be erected for the mosquito because it was deemed to have saved West Africa from the fate of southern Africa and the difficulties that came with the independence struggle.

I have never been persuaded that the deterrence to European settlement in West Africa was a worthwhile trade-off for the havoc caused to us by the presence of the malarial mosquito in our part of the world, but that is an argument that will doubtless continue.

'Worst sound in the world'

It also does not detract from the reality of just how horrible malaria is. How you contract malaria is just as bad as the disease itself.

There is nothing more dreadful on this Earth than the "hmmmmnnn" sound which wakes you up and alerts you to the fact that you have been bitten by the dreaded female anopheles mosquito and infected with the malaria parasite.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Malaria affects millions of people

I am also in the unfortunate situation that none of the anti-malaria prophylactics work for me. I break out in rashes or I get dizzy and if truth be told, I don't really like sleeping under mosquito nets.

In the past 16 years that I have been back in malarial Ghana, I have dealt with the problem by simply trying to avoid being bitten.

Thus far, it has worked but it has taken an almighty effort that I would not really wish on anybody.

Image copyright CDC
Image caption Mosquitoes identify potential hosts using their sense of smell

It is with this background that I come to the new scientific discovery that might help eliminate malaria.

Ethiopian and Swedish scientists are said to have discovered that the answer to the malaria problem might lie with the lowly chicken.

Malarial mosquitoes apparently cannot cope with the scent of chickens.

The experiments, conducted in western Ethiopia, are said to have included suspending a live chicken in a cage near a volunteer sleeping under a bed net.

Compounds extracted from chicken feathers were also used in the experiments, as well as live chickens.

OK, so I adore chicken; the meat, that is, but I am not sure about the scent of chicken in my bedroom.

The thought of having to decide between the scent of chickens in my bedroom or the sound of the anopheles mosquito or being ravaged by malaria is most unappealing.

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