Thanks to their outstanding contributions to the Power of One campaign, three Novartis associates – Manishha Patel, Perla Maldonado and Roger Waltzman – recently had the chance to travel to Kenya with the Novartis Malaria Initiative to see for themselves what life is like for those battling daily against the disease. We spoke with them to find out more about what they witnessed, how the visit affected them and what they think about the future of the fight against malaria in Africa.
Q – You visited Kenya with the Novartis Malaria initiative team for three days in March. What was the highlight of the trip for you?
Manishha: Talking with the Kenyan people and feeling their hospitality. I was also very fortunate to have learned about the many challenges faced by healthcare workers and organizations trying to help malaria patients – besides much needed drugs and better access to health care, there is a real lack of education in more rural areas how to attack this disease for its permanent eradication.
Manishha in the streets of Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya.
Perla: I come from Mexico, and so I am familiar with poverty. However, I was surprised by the spirit of all the people I saw. It is incredible how they always offer you a smile without asking for anything in exchange.
Roger: People are working very hard to address the issue of malaria. It’s not being ignored. The problems that exist are limitations on financial resources, drug availability, and prevention measures such as insecticidal bed nets. These are the challenges – not apathy or neglect. Collaborating with people in this environment, and providing the will to work together to prevent this problem, I believe, will go a long way.
Manishha: Another thing that struck me was the severity of the disease on young children. I saw for myself the devastating effects complicated malaria can have on children. At the clinic in Kombewa, we met a little girl of 2 years old. She had come to the clinic in a coma due to cerebral malaria, the most severe progression of the disease. Although she was on the road to recovery, the doctor told us she would most likely have serious brain damage. I realized that, sometimes, even if you are able to treat a patient for malaria, depending on the progression of the disease, the damage inflicted may already be irreversible. In these rural regions, it is extremely difficult for these patients to then lead ‘normal’ lives. There are no words to describe how useless you feel in these moments.
Q – How do you think countries in the developed world – and companies like Novartis – should approach the treatment of malaria?
Perla visits with three sugar cane farmers in a village in Kisumu, Kenya.
Manishha: I think Novartis has a real sense of corporate responsibility and is approaching the treatment and elimination of malaria and other tropical diseases with a lot of fire-power and enthusiasm. In general, I think there is a decline in funding from pharmaceutical companies for projects similar to the Novartis Malaria Initiative; but if we are ever to see the eradication of malaria, companies and individuals need to be more supportive of projects intent on fighting malaria.
Perla: Malaria is not an African problem, it is a problem of the world. I remember the words of one of the people we met at the village in Kisumu. He said, “our beliefs are killing us...” He was referring to the way malaria is transmitted. However this idea applies to us too. Closing our eyes to avoid the problem will not save a child. We are all part of the same humanity and as a unit we cannot ignore people who are suffering. Malaria is a problem for everybody, and we should fight against this disease together.
Q – Did the trip change the way you look at or approach your life or work?
At AMREF clinic, Nairobi, Kenya, Roger looks at blood slide with malaria they received yesterday.
Perla: I plan to continue my work as an advocate. My very immediate objective will be to transmit to my family, friends and colleague the importance of saving lives through campaigns against malaria.
Manishha: I no longer see myself spending my entire career exclusively in research. I’m determined to blend my love of science with advocacy and outreach to the developing world. I eventually want to be part of a team that brings research and resources where they are needed most. I believe that if we all think as global citizens, our advocacy can lead to extraordinary progress.
Roger: I am the head of Novartis Pharma’s antimalarial treatment development program, so visiting health centers in Kenya brought a whole new perspective to my day-to-day work. I cannot overestimate how important this experience has been. It’s invaluable for me to make a personal connection with people who can actually get things done! But meeting the people on the front line, and hearing about the practical issues they face – from affording medication, to distributing bed nets, and identifying better prevention strategies – has given me a whole new level of understanding about the nature of the challenge we face.