12/05/2012 08:32 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2013

Finding Kosaviya

I asked my sister Margaret if she had suggestions for my post about NETwork Against Malaria's recent distribution. She sent this, which I call "Finding Kosaviya."

In 2011, I was funded by my medical school to travel to Uganda to conduct research over my "summer holiday." I researched and then worked in the pediatric acute care unit at Mulago Hospital, Uganda's largest public hospital. There I saw case after case of malaria -- a 30-day-old baby with trouble breathing, covered with mosquito bites, died of malaria. An eight-year-old girl with bleeding kidneys needed a blood transfusion, but the hospital lacked blood, and her father didn't have money for transport to another hospital -- she died from malaria. Six-year-old Sarah, moaning, not knowing who she was or what was going on, died from cerebral malaria. All of these children were so poor their families waited until the last minute to take them to hospital. By then, it was too late. Malaria nets, I realized, are the best solution.

In my free time, I traveled to meet NETwork Against Malaria's Ugandan volunteers, distribute nets to 1,000 additional students in Hoima, and meet students who had previously received nets further north in Katulikirie.

Katulikirie was a haven for internally displaced persons fleeing the now famous Joseph Kony. People escaped through government army-controlled bridges to internally displaced persons camps. The rebels are gone, the camps closed, but many of the people stayed and are extremely poor. To get to Katulikirie, I took a GaGa charter bus from Kampala on a narrow, newly paved road, so narrow that when large trucks carrying cows or pigs passed by with their open roofs, my bus pulled to over to the dirt and allowed them to pass. I arrived at the Katulikire market on a late Saturday afternoon. Vendors sold smoked chicken on a stick. Moms with babies sat with baskets of corn and mangoes. Men shouldered bundles of plantains. Large steel shipping container-type boxes had been converted to shops where venders sold crackers and Coca-Cola.

Here I met Francis; we enjoyed an ice-cold bottled Coke. Go figure! We drove further off the road past moms carrying babies on their back, water on their head, firewood in their arms, past round huts with children peering outside to look at me, past children and women at a well tossing a small bucket on a frayed rope into the depths below. In Katulikirie I was led to the kitchen where women who look after the grounds prepared a large meal. They watched anxiously for approval, and waited until I was finished before they considered eating themselves.

During my village stay, I met many children carrying their brothers on their backs, carrying water for their family, carrying goods to the market. I visited two boarding schools: one for girls (Schola Maututina) and a co-ed school (Bl. Mother Teresa). The schools were completely protected against malaria through receiving our nets. I visited dormitories with bunks stacked three high, covered with mosquito nets. The principal at Bl. Mother Teresa told me malaria absentees had been reduced to virtually "zero percent"!

One Sunday morning, a group of children came to meet me. Led by an older girl, Koskovia, a group of children sang songs for three hours while I sat on a tree stump. They taught me their names. Little Margaret was elated that we share the same name. They giggled as they taught me how to dance. After a little encouragement with great pride they danced their traditional dance, the dingy dingy. I learned many of them attended neighboring Katulikirie Primary School where NETwork Against Malaria distributed nets the year prior. Some of the other children, including Kosaviya, the youngest, attended nearby Bweyale primary school.
The next day, I visited Katulikirie Primary School. The entire school, over 1,000 students, assembled outside under a tree to meet me. The older students sang and danced. They thanked me for coming and thanked me because NETwork Against Malaria had given nets to the school the year before. I was humbled, though, when I learned there had been only enough nets for the seventh grade students who recently graduated. The children currently at the school had not benefitted from the distribution. Yet they were so grateful!

My trip to Uganda changed my vision for NETwork Against Malaria. It is one thing to fundraise for at-risk children, it is another thing to fundraise for children I know, at risk of dying from malaria. I have lost a lot of sleep knowing while we raised funds to buy them malaria nets, they were getting sick, even dying of the disease. I promised myself that I would ensure every child I met, every school I visited -- I would protect against malaria. Since my return, we targeted Francis's 58 schools, 33,000+ students, we distributed 11,000+ nets for 15,000+ total. In Summer 2012 we distributed to Katulikirie Primary school -- Koskovia and Margaret are likely safe. Two weeks ago, we distributed to Bweyale, and we looked for Kosaviya, my youngest friend, but the volunteers in Uganda did not find her. I cannot say where she is. It's possible she is not in school; parents who are particularly poor often keep young girls home to work. It's possible she is in a different school. It's possible she is sick or something happened to her. Hopefully, we weren't too late and it wasn't malaria.

I want to find Kosaviya, I want to make sure she is in school. I want to make sure she does not die from malaria. I think when people think of malaria, they think of poor masses of African children with distended bellies. It's easy to see malaria as a problem that is too large to solve. When I think of malaria I think of Kosaviya. I do not want to believe that adorable little girl who entertained me and welcomed me to Katulikirie could have her life taken by malaria. My goal is to find her, and to continue protecting 1000s of other girls and boys while we search.