Gabriel Edwards Jr is the vector control supervisor in Belize’s Toledo district, often described as the country’s last frontier. Located along Belize’s southern border with Guatemala, the district is home to 1,700 square miles of pristine rainforest and a thriving agriculture industry.
Vector control is a vital service in Toledo, where the long rainy seasons fuel mosquito populations and cross-border migration with Guatemala complicates disease surveillance. Gabriel’s team oversees management of malaria, dengue, zika, chikungunya, and other vector-borne diseases. A key part of their work is reaching the most remote communities, which often requires long and treacherous journeys through Belize’s thick forests and jungles.
“There are some villages that are not accessible by motorbikes or cars, which means you have to walk,” Gabriel said. “We have to take our kits with us, our water, our food. That’s additional weight, so we really have to be physically fit, to actually be out there in the villages. And the terrains, they are not just flat terrains. There are hills that we have to climb, there are swamps that we have to go through, there are some creeks that we have to pass time to time, and these creeks can be flooded whether its raining or not. … When we get there, people offer us food, they offer us water. You know, they’re very very happy that we visit their village.”
This video helps illustrate a typical journey to reach these remote communities (Gabriel featured at the 0:32 mark).
While the commutes are often arduous, Gabriel considers the work deeply rewarding.
“My motivation is basically to see people get well. I have an ill son, and I know what it’s like to have someone that is not feeling well in the family,” Gabriel said. “To see someone ill, and then two weeks later, to see them doing much better, it gives you the drive, it gives you the energy to push on and keep doing what we do.”
Gabriel’s team provides a wide range of services, including disease case monitoring, delivery of mosquito nets, indoor residual spraying, and raising community awareness about vector-borne diseases and how to prevent them.
“We see clearly that we improve their homes, by giving bed nets. We see that we give them clarity in figuring out whether their fevers are malaria or other infections. We see that people are more comfortable, they are more optimistic about life, because they know if they have some little issue, at the very least we can give them a malaria test to let them know, you don’t have it, or you have it,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel takes tremendous pride in Belize reaching and sustaining zero malaria cases. But he also understands the factors that could cause a malaria resurgence – particularly in Toledo.
“There are many challenges that I believe we have to prevent malaria from returning back,” Gabriel said. “We have Guatemalans that have relatives here, and we have people from Belize that have relatives over there. And so, Belize is unique, because there are so many areas you could cross to go over to Guatemala. Also, people just keep moving. And the problem is, if Guatemala is still having cases, at some point, we need to be very careful we don’t have that back coming into our country. That’s a major, major challenge.”
Belize has reported zero non-imported malaria cases since December 2018, and may soon receive its malaria-free certification from the World Health Organization.
“If we get the certificate, not only Belizeans will know we are safe, but international countries as well. It’s going to be huge. Also, it’s going to give the Ministry of Health an opportunity to prioritize other illnesses. Perhaps we can focus on dengue a little more, and try to improve as well,” Gabriel said.