Over our school's past spring break (a terribly timed interval spanning from a Wednesday to the following Thursday), I stopped in Kindia for several days.  Mme. Sow, a teacher from Lafou and my best friend at site, had invited me to spend some time with her family before we continued to Conakry.  On our first night in the sweaty city, Mme. Sow hesitated as we got ready for bed.

"Tu ose la moustiquaire?" An odd Guinean usage of the verb 'to dare' - "Do you dare use a mosquito net?" she asked.

I glanced up at the net already hanging above the bed. Of course I dared. At home in Lafou I am religious about using my mosquito net. I count on it not only as the best shot against getting malaria, but also as a barrier between me and all the other smaller, creepier things that crawl around my house at night. But not all Guineans share the same opinion.

Nets are a pain, they say.  Nets are hot, nets smell bad, nets aren't needed. Too few actually dare the 'moustiquaire' (mosquito net in French, pronounced: moose-tee-care). But they should. The simple truth is, mosquitos feed at night. They proliferate every region of Guinea, and malaria is the single leading cause of death in the country. Yet Guineans minimize the disease. Either they consider any sickness with a fever as malaria, or they refuse to acknowledge its prevalence. The old principal of my school, one of the more educated adults in my village, insisted that there weren't mosquitos in our prefecture because it was too cold. (This was also the man who thought Vitamin C and calcium were the same thing.)

I recently asked my 8th and 9th graders to write short statements on how malaria affected their lives, just to get an idea of how relevant the problem actually was around here. Even knowing the statistics, I wasn't prepared for the responses:

"My sister had malaria last year."

"My grandmother died from malaria."

"I've had malaria."

"My grandfather passed away because of malaria."

"Malaria killed my friend."

The list continues.  Even volunteers, here under strict orders to take prophylaxis and sleep under nets, still get sick.  Last January, getting malaria was the last straw for my closest PCV neighbor before she decided to return home.

As a science teacher, I can't help but dipping into the pathogenesis of the disease. Ready for a quick bio lesson? There are four species of the protist plasmodium that can cause malaria. P. falciparum, the plasmodium that takes the cake for the most cases of malaria in West Africa, is consequently, the most severe. This sucker infects more red blood cells that the other three malaria species, which can lead to fatal hemorrhages and tissue death, especially in the brain.

Guineans I've met don't see it as a huge risk. A few weeks ago, my neighbor Mariama, a 22 year old pregnant woman with a huge smile, got sick. When I asked her what was wrong, she shrugged and said, "Oh nothing...malaria."  She assured me she would go to the health center soon, but at the moment she was just too tired. The building was only a hundred feet away.

Maybe they've seen it too much.  Maybe the partial immunity that develops here gives a false sense of security. Or maybe it's the education system.

There is a disproportionate amount of exposure to certain public health issues in Guinea.  The convoluted national curriculum introduces AIDS in 3rd grade, yet fails to emphasize the merits of a well-balanced diet until 10th grade biology. Never mind a large number of students will drop out before middle school.  The cover of the curriculum book is decorated with the words: 'Condoms: Avoid STDs, AIDS, and Pregnancy,' as if the curriculum, like a Sesame Street episode brought to you by the letter J, was sponsored by condoms.  Never mind the number one killer in the country is a parasite transmitted by mosquitos.

Though I can't redesign the curriculum, I can affect my surrounding population through my students. With encouragement from the Malaria Month initiative from the Stomp Out Malaria program (check it out: http://stompoutmalaria.org/), I've  been forcing malaria education down my students' throats for the past few weeks.

We go over the gritty details of the plasmodium life cycle. We talk about prevention strategies. We laugh til tears dressing boys as pregnant women who act out best practices for the high-risk group. But I also try to scare my kids into action. They react to the stats. Malaria touches a billion people a year, and causes over a million deaths. Here in Guinea, malaria kills more than heart disease, more than car accidents, more than diarrhea, more than AIDS.  As I say these things in class, their eyes widen.  They get it. They want to take action. So this past week, 128 of my students from 7th to 9th grade took the following malaria pledge (or "Promesse Palu" in French):

"I will sleep under a mosquito net every night.
I will talk to my family about malaria.
I will get rid of stagnant water in my neighborhood."

Check out the video of my students taking the pledge:


Not all of my students will follow through on the pledge. But some might, and some will continue to pass along positive behavior to their peers and family.

To answer Mme. Sow's question, "Do you dare use the mosquito net?," there's only one good answer.

Yes, I dare. You should too.

How will you Stomp Out Malaria in 2013?

Check out the following links to learn more about the Stomp initiative:

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/StompOutMalaria

Twitter https://twitter.com/stompm_guinea

Stomp Page: http://stompoutmalaria.org/

And check out the Peace Corps Partnership Program to donate to malaria related projects!