In the past few years, malaria outbreaks in at-risk counties in Kenya are on the rise due to above-average rainfall since 2017. The most vulnerable areas for malaria outbreaks are counties in the Kenyan western highlands and the arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya.
Malaria outbreaks cause a large number of deaths and occur as emergencies, usually during the rainy season, and need proper interventions to avert suffering and deaths.
Between 2017 and 2019, a number of Malaria outbreaks have been reported in Kenya in several counties including Marsabit, Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet, and parts of Nakuru County. As the outbreaks mainly occur during the rainy season, the situation is often complicated by other issues related to high rainfall, such as flooding, displacement, and other waterborne and sanitation-related diseases.
When Dr. Grace Ikahu took up the position of the Head of the National Malaria Program in late 2019, her work was cut out for her. “I like challenges and will put in every effort to solve them until I achieve results”, she says of her job.
The country lacked systems and capacity for Malaria Epidemic Preparedness and Response (EPR), which had been eroded over the years since the late 1990s when malaria outbreaks were last witnessed.
Within a few short months, a success she credits to her able leadership and stakeholder mobilization skills, she led the establishment of the Kenya Malaria EPR policy framework to guide the prediction, detection, and effective response to contain malaria outbreaks and to build the capacity of health workers and county teams on Malaria EPR.
The documents in the Malaria EPR policy framework include:
Additionally, in November 2019, Dr. Ikahu commissioned a Rapid Assessment of the most at-risk counties and sub-counties to assess the level of preparedness and readiness to respond to potential malaria epidemics.
The report of the assessment was used to mobilize additional resources from partners and prioritize interventions to address existing vulnerabilities in order to further strengthen the malaria EPR system. The report of the Rapid Assessment can be found here.
Dr. Grace Ikahu’s efforts to enhance future Malaria epidemic preparedness and response also saw her at the helm of the Malaria Program, with support from stakeholders, establish a Malaria EPR Technical Working Group that brought all the players in malaria and disease surveillance and response together, to promote regular dialogue, enhance surveillance, planning, and coordinate response efforts for ongoing and future malaria epidemics.
At the National Malaria Program, Dr. Ikahu’s leadership was described as ‘focused’. “She motivated us and promoted teamwork and we were able to achieve so much in malaria EPR in a very short time,” says Jacinta Omariba, a Program Officer in Malaria EPR at the malaria program. “During her tenure, we were able to improve surveillance, pick up any impending epidemics early, and respond in a timely manner,” she quips.
Stakeholders also lauded Dr. Ikahu’s efforts. “We got the much-needed direction to improve malaria control and elimination efforts in Kenya,” says Dr. Sophie Njoroge, from the USAID funded the Measure Evaluation Project, adding that Kenya was able to strengthen Malaria EPR structures under Dr. Ikahu’s leadership and support.
Dr. Ikahu gives credit to the committed team at the Malaria program. “I am grateful for the opportunity to work with a wonderful team. I just motivated them and mobilized the required resources, and they did all the hard work for us to achieve results” she said.
Grace Ikahu is a medical doctor and senior public health specialist with more than thirteen years of experience in health policy, global health and diplomacy, and health systems. She was the head of the National Malaria program from July 2019 to July 2020.