Passion For Kayaking Sparks Fight Against Malaria Five years ago, Dr. Jessie Stone had temporarily given up medicine and left New York to pursue her passion for kayaking. She had no idea that her medical career and her passion would cross paths and change her life. Today, she runs a malaria prevention program in rural Uganda.
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Passion For Kayaking Sparks Fight Against Malaria

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Passion For Kayaking Sparks Fight Against Malaria

Passion For Kayaking Sparks Fight Against Malaria

Passion For Kayaking Sparks Fight Against Malaria

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Five years ago, Dr. Jessie Stone had temporarily given up medicine and left New York to pursue her passion for kayaking. She had no idea that her medical career and her passion would cross paths and change her life. Today, she runs a malaria prevention program in rural Uganda.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Every year, more than 500 million people contract malaria. More than 3 million of them die. The situation is especially dire in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Uganda alone, nearly 320 people die of the disease every day. Reporter Stefani Jackenthal has the unusual story of an American kayaker who's helping to fight malaria in Uganda by running a sort of kayaking camp with a cause.

Dr. JESSIE STONE (Physician; Kayaking Enthusiast): In January of 2003, I was invited on a kayak expedition back to the Zambezi, where I had once worked as a whitewater rafting guide, and then to the Nile, where I'd never been before. And while I was here, two of the guys who were part of our group got Malaria, and I had to treat them.

STEFANI JACKENTHAL: Good thing for them that Jessie Stone is also a doctor. Five years ago, she had temporarily given up medicine and left New York to pursue her passion for kayaking. She had no idea that her medical career and her passion would cross paths and change her life and literally save lives in rural Uganda.

Dr. STONE: OK, good. The net looks nice. Can we see the other one that's hanging?

Unidentified Woman: Look.

Dr. STONE: Big, big hole. We have to explain to her that now it becomes a mosquito trap instead of a mosquito net. Mosquitoes fly in, and they can't get out.

JACKENTHAL: This is just one of a dozen hut calls Dr. Stone is making this day. She is educating Ugandans about malaria prevention while inspecting mosquito nets hung in their dank mud-and-dung homes. It's a mission she started soon after her kayaking friends contracted the disease.

Dr. STONE: And then that made me look around to the larger problem of malaria here and ask the simple question, do people have mosquito nets, do they get malaria all the time? What do they do?

JACKENTHAL: Very little, it turned out. Dr. Stone said a survey she and an assistant conducted in a village called Kyabirwa found that no one had a mosquito net and most didn't understand how malaria is spread. As a result, the village was physically debilitated and economically devastated.

Dr. STONE: There was this cycle that was going on every single month where people were spending all of their income on malaria. And it was so easy to prevent it and certainly to reduce substantially the number of illnesses that people had, and to prevent death.

JACKENTHAL: Since then, Dr. Jessie, as she is known here, has built Soft Power Health in Bujagali. And her volunteers have spread out across eastern Uganda holding education sessions under mango trees, school yards, or village squares. They use seven hand-drawn cartoons on oak tag to illustrate malaria's progression.

Dr. STONE: Mrs. Anopheles, the female mosquito, bites you at nighttime, usually when you are sleeping. And it's during that time that she transfers the malaria into your body. And it's Mrs. Anopheles who's biting you because she needs to make a meal of your blood to feed her eggs. Mr. Anopheles only eats fruits and plants.

Unidentified Interpreter: (Ugandan language spoken)

JACKENTHAL: Every day, crews of volunteers, interpreters, and educators based near the Nile drive up to three hours across washed-out, red-clay roads to the surrounding 30 villages educating groups of 30 to 300 people at a time. Dr. Stone supplements the lessons with mosquito nets. She sells at a subsidized rate of 3,000 shillings each, or about $1.50 U.S. currency. That's a day's pay in this part of Uganda. In the past four years, her organization has educated more than 100,000 people and sold more than 25,000 nets.

Dr. STONE: What we've discovered is that if people have to pay a little something for their mosquito net, they are invested in that net. We've seen with nets that have been given away in some of the villages that we work in, that those nets that have been given away free are not used and are often just resold for money.

JACKENTHAL: Two to six months later, they make follow-up visits in villages.

Dr. STONE: How many people including children sleep under the net?

Unidentified Woman: (Ugandan language spoken)

Dr. STONE: We are out there, and with translators and local educators trying to make sure that the correct information gets to people. I really think that that's the only way forward for prevention of malaria. It's not going to be through some fancy means of getting the material out there. It's just going to be through simple hard work like this.

Unidentified Woman: She's saying that now the money she used to take to the hospital, she can now buy milk for her baby.

JACKENTHAL: Dr. Stone hopes to expand the malaria program and establish clinics in other rural villages in Uganda. As for her other passion...

Dr. STONE: I am also here to kayak as much as I can, to train for upcoming events and expeditions. So it's a balance of those two things.

JACKENTHAL: For NPR News, I am Stefani Jackenthal.

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