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By: United to Beat Malaria Champion

Meet Winter: Malaria Survivor & Nothing But Nets Champion

July 1, 2019
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My name is Winter Okoth, and I’m a strong African woman born and raised in Kenya. I was raised and grew up in both the remote rural area of Siaya County based in Kisumu, Kenya and also in the slums of Nairobi, where I was born.

Now, I’m pursuing a career as a scientist and public health professional with my main focus on malaria, among other infectious diseases. I’ve been fascinated by the science behind malaria and want to better understand this disease’ dynamics and find ways to eradicate it. While growing up, I experienced first-hand stringent poverty, struggled with my education due to the cost of school fees, and domestic issues.

Why am I so passionate about ending malaria? In sub-Saharan Africa, malaria is still one of the leading causes of illness and death in children under the age of five years.

My hometown of Kisumu-Kenya is a malaria hotspot, known for having high malaria transmission as well as cases of severe malaria among infants and young children. While living there, I suffered from the disease myself and witnessed children and pregnant women lose their lives because of a mosquito bite.

When you have malaria, there are a number of symptoms you can experience. I had a recurring fever and headache with increased body temperatures, nausea, loss of appetite, heavy sweating as well as muscle weakness and joint pain.

Both the dispensary clinic and referral hospital were quite far away from my grandmother’s house, so when my cousins and I were sick with malaria, we usually went to the home of a certified nurse for healthcare services. During initial fever and sweating onsets, my grandmother would boil herbal plant leaves and let us drink it to relieve the symptoms. This always helped with the severity of our discomfort.

However, many lives are still lost to this disease due to weak health systems and infrastructures, lack of health facilities and trained healthcare workers, and other factors. Throughout my years in the village, insecticide treated bed nets played a huge role in lessening contact between people in my community and anopheles mosquitoes, especially at night when these mosquitoes feed.

Sometimes, we didn’t have enough bed nets and therefore one had to be shared amongst four people. We gave first priority to infants and young children.

Coming to the USA was such an eye opener and profound exposure that helped widen, strengthen and better shaped my life’s purpose, mission and vision. My experiences in the USA have laid a great foundation for who I’m becoming. I recently achieved a Masters of Science degree in molecular microbiology and immunology, at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Class of 2017.

As a scientist, I am determined to not only better understand the dynamics of the Plasmodium malaria parasites, mosquito vector and the human immune system but also very eager to contribute in developing vaccine(s) and other therapeutic measures to prevent, eliminate and eradicate this life-threatening disease for good!

I have a dream that one day the whole world will be free of malaria, one village, one country, one region at a time! That’s why it’s such an honor to be involved with Nothing but Nets. I have met with my members of Congress and discussed the need for increased funding for malaria prevention, as well as the important leadership role of the U.S. in the fight to defeat malaria.

It has been great actively participating in the malaria advocacy meetings on Capitol Hill – I even had the opportunity to speak with Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD) and urged him to author a floor statement in support of U.S. leadership to end malaria globally.

Malaria is both a public health and global health concern that is linked not only to maternal and child-health; it is tied to political stability, national security and economic growth. Therefore, advocacy plays a huge role.

Advocates are leaders: we give hope and help create change.

Advocacy provides us the platform to tell our survival stories and be the voice to the vulnerable. Reaching out to the public and meeting with members of congress is one of the powerful ways we can continue to march forward in the fight against malaria towards eventual elimination.

It is one of my dreams that one day the whole world will be malaria-free and that my generation will be able to say that we #DefeatedMalaria.

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