Health officials say there is a possibility of malaria spreading in the country when soldiers who were engaged in jungle operations in the North and the East return to their hometowns, following the conclusion of the war.
Dr. R. Abeysinghe, director of the national malaria control programme, said health officials were working with the Sri Lanka Army Medical Corps to conduct blood tests and screen soldiers to ensure they are not infected.
Last year, 670 persons were reported infected with malaria, 520 of them soldiers and 150 civilians. Between January and June this year, 142 cases have been reported, 120 of them soldiers and 22 civilians.
“Because the soldiers were constantly on the move during military operations, most of them were unable to complete the two-week course of treatment,” Dr. Abeysinghe said. “What we are seeing now are mostly cases of relapses among previously infected persons who have not been completely cured, rather than new cases of malaria.”
A large number of soldiers who were in the jungles of the Wanni and in Yala had fallen victim to malaria, also known as “jungle fever”.
Meanwhile, cases of malaria have been reported from Moneragala, Tissamaharama and Kataragama, in addition to cases in the North and the East.
Dr. Abeysinghe said delivery of anti-malaria medicines during the conflict for soldiers doing duty in jungles and in marshy areas was difficult. “There’s a strong possibility of soldiers falling ill once they get home. We have instructed medical officers around the country to be on the alert, to visit houses and to encourage people to be screened for malaria.”
Dr. Abeysinghe said screening programmes will be held ahead of the Kataragama festival season, which draws large numbers of pilgrims from the East every year.
The Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which gave Sri Lanka US$10 million between 2004 and 2009, will allocate US$36 million exclusively for the malaria programme, starting this year and continuing till 2014.
“Our target is to eliminate malaria by 2015,” Dr Abeysinghe said. “Over the past 20 years we faced a number of challenges in tackling diseases in the North and the East. We lacked infrastructure, especially facilities for transport, access and communication were problems, and there was a lack of peripheral hospitals.”
Malaria is caused by a parasite that is transmitted to humans by an infected mosquito. Symptoms include fever, headache, and vomiting, which usually appear 10 to 15 days after a patient has been bitten by a malarial mosquito. Untreated, malaria can fast become life-threatening, as the disease disrupts the blood supply to vital organs.
Malaria can be checked with timely treatment. The disease can be controlled by spraying insecticide and using mosquito nets.Malarial mosquitoes tend to bite at night, and breed in slow-moving water, such as streams and pools.