'Media can control malaria'

Dr Somah, an Associate Professor of Environmental Health at North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University (NCA&T), Greensboro, North Carolina, came to India on September 9, 2010 to conduct research on Malaria in the Department of Bio-Sciences in Mangalore University on Fulbright-Nehru Scholarship.

He has published three books and has earned a number of scholrships and awards. Those things look pale compared to Somah’s dedication to the eradication of malaria, a disease that kills more than two million people every year.

His passionate involvement in studying Malaria has personal tryst. A native of Liberia, he has witnessed ugliest human catastrophe of malaria. His pregnant sister too succumbed to it.

Why Mangalore?

What made Somah to come to India, particularly to Mangalore to study malaria? “Any scholar who wants to study malaria will come to South Asia, since about 77% of total  malaria cases are found here. I choose India since it has tribal belts which are the most vulnerable. India loses 20,000 people annually. Every 30 second one will die. It is killing India’s future since there may be a Gandhi or Theresa among the children so killed,” he quips.

 “Though I intended to visit Orissa to study people who can not afford fans, plugs, nets, doors and windows to drive away killer mosquitoes, the universities in Orissa do not have the background to accommodate me. I did know Mangalore is educational and cultural hub. Since my research is culture based, I looked a place where a lot of cultural events happen- feasts, festivals, ceremonies, and worships. I was fascinated by Tiger dance,” he reveals. 

 Are our officials not aware of this ? What about India’s National Malaria Eradication Programme? “People in India are upset when I reveal these facts. And having fabulous programs on papers is different from implementing them,” contends Dr Somah. He firther elaborates, “Of course malaria killed world wide more civilians and soldiers than the guns in both world wars. But now US, UK, Germany, Japan, Poland, Caribbean, Israel have got rid of it almost.”

 But that was done in the initial stages by indiscriminate use of DDT. Soon it was banned. Indian government dropped the DDT option. But, Somah strongly disagrees. He says that DDT would be the most affordable means for a country like India. “DDT is not such an harmful chemical. For that matter, the entire world is made up of chemical and exists because of it. The notion that DDT is harmful to environment was a result of research work made by Rachel Carson in her book ‘Silver Spring,’ which stands thoroughly discredited now. Environmental Protection Agency, with a lot of empirical studies, disproved Rachel’s findings as flawed and fishy science. DDT if put in safety dose will eradicate mosquitoes while making no harm to environment. “If you drink even water disproportionately, it is lethal for you. That is the case with every drug. Safe dose matters,” he argues.

CDMC

So, is DDT spraying enough in India? “No, no,” quips Dr. Somah, “Malaria has no silver bullet to demand a single solution. Malaria has to be tackled by a lot of approaches, a whole cornucopia. Malaria is menace which virtually calls for a war. Apart from DDT, the solution can be biological, medication, bed nets, and doors and windows, new designed houses and cities, nutrition, physician-education and physician-character building, (a very important in India), school education and others. I have designed Cultural Driven Malaria Control (CDMC) which includes using movies, radio, sms, particularly in local languages along with festivals, fares, ceremonies and other community celebrations. It is critical that our people informed to recognise not the symptoms of the disease but also what havoc it can play in their economic and emotional life.”

 Somah stresses on physician’s character building. “Doctors are under-reporting malaria cases for the fear of reprisals.

Role of media

Why in the midst of such an apathy there is no sort of enragement in India ? What role media can play here ?

“Yes, what  matters here is culture,” says Somah. “Sometimes hypocrisy and ignorance rules the roost in the entire national life. In US, as media reported 12 deaths in bird flu, President Obama declared 5 billion dollars to tackle the disease. Such sensitivity is not to be found here. You can not put a good face on a killer disease. As for my CDMC programme is concerned, media can do the best. First and foremost, media should get sensitised themselves on the malaria. It’s so nice that media is doing so wonderfully in combating terrorism and corruptions scandals in India. But it’s been a mystery why they are not bothered about a disease which kills one in every 30 seconds. Terrorism can not do that. It, of course, affects the poor mostly. But don’t think it sparing your well to do either. There are a good number of cases of it having killed pilots, engineers, professors and others. On all those occasions, India’ s response has been just reactive, not proactive. This is not less than any financial scandal. Because Malaria is after all a preventable disease. This is very bad for a would be super power. I am hopeful media can do this still.        

How Dr Somah feels in the last leg of his India visit on Fulbright?

“I believe I have succeeded because, since my arrival in India, I have hit the ground running and no evil can conquer love.”

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