Fredros Okumu: ‘Nothing is cast in stone’

One Tanzanian research scientist looks for innovative ways to eliminate malaria by studying and monitoring mosquitoes.

Malaria kills 60,000 people every year in Tanzania.

Lifelines health hero Dr Fredros Okumu is a research scientist at the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania. He started working on malaria research when he was 19, inspired by the possibility that malaria could be eliminated in the future.

“I am fortunate that I’m still young enough, God willing, I want to be there when malaria is eliminated. I want to be a part of that.”

“It’s a little insect but it kills a lot more people than many wars.”

Okumu researches new technologies for control and surveillance of the mosquitoes that transmit malaria. He studies their behaviour, where they lay their eggs and where they are biting people.

“Nothing is cast in stone. The ecology can change so it’s important that we keep monitoring this and updating the information we have about [the] disease and about malaria as time goes by.”

Okumu uses the example of the introduction of bed nets. Initially extremely successful, bed nets decreased malaria prevalence between 50 and 60 percent, in Tanzania.

What Okumu is now interested in discovering is the behaviour of the mosquitoes that are not biting people in their homes.

“The epidemiology is changing with the bed nets. For a long time malaria control specialists thought that with the coming of bed nets they had everything that they needed. What they forgot is that the ecology of mosquitoes was so minimally studied.”

Okumu views his passion to see the disease eradicated as both a personal mission as well as a worldwide ethical responsibility.

“The mosquitoes we are dealing with they are clever animals. They are competing for resources as well. If you put pressure on them by killing as many of them as possible they start to become resilient at a certain stage,” explains Okumu. “And that means, if you spring back, if you recoil, if you stop doing what you’re doing, they’re going to bounce back. And if they bounce back, they’re probably going to be resistant to whatever interventions you have.

“We [are] now almost ethically bound to attempt to eliminate the disease so it doesn’t come back.”

Okumu is one of many health heroes of Lifelines: The Quest for Global Health.

Lifelines: The Quest for Global Health will air on Al Jazeera in 2014.