Local climate expert Patrick Sithole asserts to have identified a solution to managing malaria after undertaking research for a doctoral thesis on climate change and the effects on the prevalence thereof in the province.
Sithole allegedly foresaw the current malaria outbreak in 2015 when he was doing a study on climate linkages to malaria. He has since developed a framework on how climate conditions can be used in predicting and managing malaria. He is of the opinion that the Department of Health should establish a team consisting of climate experts and medical practitioners to eradicate the disease. “There is a link between malaria and climate in the Vhembe district as a result of the different climate zones. The response to malaria should therefore take these zones into consideration.”
Sithole explained that population density plays a role with regards to malaria outbreak trends. “Human population issues also play an important role in the different climate zones as this triggers different behaviours which in turn either expose the person to mosquito bites or not. When it is raining people have the tendency to stay indoors and wear warm clothes which protect them from mosquitoes, however when it is warm, they walk outside in less protective clothing which allows mosquito bites.”
As part of his findings Sithole identified that there has always been a surge in malaria in the province following a drought, as was the case now. This, he said, can be explained from a climate and mosquito breeding perspective but can also point to a decrease in the level of immunity and nutrition in people.
He said climate conditions in Vhembe are currently conducive to vector breeding, habitation and transmission of malaria. Climate data needs to be examined regularly to determine changes in suitability of inhabitants for malaria transmission. Sithole added that traditionally such climate activities would not be undertaken by National Malaria Control Programmes but may need to be done by others so as to increase the network on climate data within the district. He explained that Department of Health in collaboration with the South African Weather Service should set up more weather stations in Vhembe to generate more climate data, which can be used in identifying malaria-vulnerable areas. Alternatively, portable, multivariate and easy-to-use climate measurement equipment should be purchased for all medical centres in Vhembe district. This will improve the pool of climate data.
Based on the work in his research, malaria vulnerability mapping should be continuously carried out to monitor and identify areas that are highly prone to malaria as the climate changes. Proactive focus should then be on the most affected areas and experts must analyse the data to see how best they can fight the epidemic. The department can then monitor and encourage residents to use various response strategies and programmes as set out in their plans.
“My study clearly mapped out all malaria prone areas in the Vhembe district. This information will be useful to the Department of Health. We have to use the knowledge that we have to prepare for future malaria outbreaks in order to avoid history repeating itself. We need to educate our people for them to know how to prevent the disease,” he said.
Sithole attained his PhD in Environmental Sciences from the Northwest University in 2016 after successfully submitting his thesis.
Story & photo: ENDY SENYATSI