By Anthony Langat
Kilifi in Kenya’s north coast is enveloped by indigenous coastal forest trees and constantly simmering with unforgiving tropical heat. The climate and the serene beaches make it a perfect tourist destination. However, mosquitoes plague the county during the rainy season.
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Kilifi, along with other counties in Kenya’s coastal region and areas near Lake Victoria, is considered a high-burden area for malaria transmission. The government distributes nets en masse in all malaria-endemic areas every three years and more recently, it has conducted indoor residual spraying of homes in some areas.
The Division of National Malaria Program has distributed 9.4 million nets so far this year and intends to distribute a total of 15.7 million by the end of the year. This has led to a drop in prevalence according to the division.
The overall prevalence has reduced from 8% in 2015 to 5.6%, according to the government.
To further reduce prevalence, the government is deploying the Kenya Malaria Youth Army to manage mosquito breeding sites through larval source management and utilizing drone technology to identify and conduct larviciding, which is the application of microbial or chemical insecticides.
But some community members fear that the drones may end up replacing the youth.
Following the launch of the drone program in July by President Uhuru Kenyatta, larviciding of mosquito habitats will begin this month, just before the short rainy season starts.
The president launched the use of drones for larviciding and deployed the youth teams through the Kazi Mtaani initiative — a government program that engages youth from informal settlements in manual labor to cushion them from the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the initiative, larval source management will be carried out in four counties — including Kilifi — that are plagued by mosquitoes, said Dr. George Githuka, head of the Division of the National Malaria Program.
“The main concern of the community, the counties, and everybody is that we don’t want these drones to take over jobs for the youth.”
Larval source management, according to the World Health Organization, refers to the targeted management of mosquito breeding sites, to reduce the number of mosquito larvae and pupae. This can be done by larviciding, introducing natural predators, and manipulating and modifying mosquito breeding grounds through activities that include surface water drainage, flushing of streams, and exposure of habitats.
Dr. Umu Bunu, the malaria program coordinator for Kilifi county said that young men and women under the government’s Kazi Mtaani initiative undertake larval source management by clearing bushes around homes, draining stagnant water in the environment, and larviciding using human-borne sprayers.
Similar to other targeted areas, the youth in Kilifi will do the larviciding in October during the dry season and just before the rainy season starts. This is the best time to conduct the larviciding, according to Githuka.
“The principle of use is that they [mosquito larva] have to be fixed, few, and findable, so if you do it in the rainy season all those larvicides will be washed away and there will be new pools of water,” he said.
Kilifi is also undertaking its own distribution of insecticide-treated nets and conducts regular malaria control health talks in all health facilities, environmental control measures, field demonstrations on the proper use of nets, and testing, treating, and tracking of malaria cases.
In addition to indoor residual spraying and larviciding under the Kazi Mtaani initiative, the government will use drones to spray larvicide in Kano county in the Lake Victoria region.
Githuka said Kano Plains — a large hard-to-reach swampy area — was identified as an area where drones will be useful.
“As it is the first time we are doing it, we want to see how effective it is, how expensive, the community perception and that is going to guide future scale up,” Githuka said.
A 2020 study found that drones may be a preferable alternative to conventional aircraft to identify and control mosquito habitats in congested environments or in programs with limited resources. Drones can also be equipped with any of four modules for spraying larvicides, dropping larvicide tablets, spreading larvicide granules, and ultra-low volume spraying of adulticides.
But the introduction of drones for larviciding in Kenya hasn’t been well received in some quarters. Githuka said that the main pushback is from the communities that believe that it will deny young people the larval source management job.
“The main concern of the community, the counties, and everybody is that we don’t want these drones to take over jobs for the youth,” he said. “So, we are restricting drones to places where people can’t be able to reach.”
But anxiety is already high among the malaria youth army, David Mvuye, an unemployed 31-year- old from Kilifi, said he was selected as part of the army and has been waiting for the commencement of larviciding but has not received any information on when they will be trained and deployed.
“We are just waiting for that time,” he said. “I do not know what has led to the delay.”