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North Kitsap grad has malaria prevention covered
The old Mercedes-Benz truck squeaked to a halt near the edge of the Sahara Desert. Poulsbo’s Jesse Matthews sat sweating in the cab while his friend climbed out to haggle with the police officers who had stopped them. It was Matthews’s first trip to Senegal, but his friend from medical school, Andrew Sherman, had spent time in the West African nation as a Peace Corps volunteer and knew the drill.
“It’s a pretty regular occurrence to get stopped at maybe 10 checkpoints when you’re traveling across the country,” said Matthews, a 1998 graduate of North Kitsap High School. “The police officer investigates your vehicle, and it seems like they try to find something wrong. They say, ‘You owe us some sort of fine.’”
But it wasn’t money the officers were after.
“In this case, they tried to get us to give them mosquito nets,” Matthews said.
The officers agreed to take a small cash bribe, but the negotiation underlined how valuable the nets are in sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria kills about 900,000 people a year.
In the four years since that first trip, Matthews and Sherman have made three more visits to Senegal as part of their work with Netlife, a non-profit organization they founded together.
On that inaugural journey, the two men were transporting 605 insecticide-laced bed nets to the Kedougou region of eastern Senegal, which Matthews calls “the hot spot for malaria in West Africa.”
This summer Netlife collaborated with the Peace Corps and a non-profit called Against Malaria to distribute 13,500 nets to people in the Saraya Department of Kedougou. The goal was to make sure everyone in Saraya, a poor community without access to health care, had mosquito nets. They’ll need about 7,000 more nets to reach that goal, which they hope to do soon, because the mosquito population booms between September and November each year.
Getting the nets to their destinations each year is a challenge, but it’s one that Matthews and Sherman welcome.
“Obstacles are numerous,” Matthews said. “Getting to these very remote villages is difficult. Many villages, you can only get to by bicycle. And fundraising is a challenge. But the demand and the education, that’s not as much of a challenge as you would expect.”
People across Africa know that mosquito nets dramatically reduce instances of malaria. As in the situation with the police officers, people outside of Netlife’s distribution area will often ask Matthews and Sherman to divert a few nets for them.
“Very often people that are not in our distribution region will ask us for nets, and it’s sad that we have to say no,” Matthews said.
But normally, when the men explain that the nets are going to folks with a higher risk for malaria who do not have money or health care, people are understanding.
“The Senegalese people have more of a sense of community,” Matthews said. “That sort of illustration of what these nets are for, that usually convinces them. They understand that other people need them more.”
And when the nets arrive at their destination, the recipients like to celebrate and show their gratitude. Some greet Matthews and Sherman with an elaborate feast, a simple smile and handshake, or in the more lively instances, a dance party.
“Men in Senegal don’t typically dance, so when Andy and I dance, they find it particularly entertaining,” Matthews said.
Matthews and Sherman started Netlife in 2005, when they were students at St. Louis University. With some money bequeathed to Sherman by his grandmother, the duo purchased their first nets and ventured off to Africa for the summer. In 2005, 2007 and 2008, the men took two months off from school and work and delivered many of the nets themselves. But this year, as resident physicians — Mattthews at the University of New Mexico and Sherman at the University of Rochester in New York — they were only allowed one month off and had to take more of a supervisory role in the summer’s operations.
“This is a change for us. It’s more natural for me to go to a village and do the distribution and get the hands-on experience,” Matthews said. “It gives you a sense of gratification when you hand them the nets.”
Matthews and Sherman plan to stay involved with Netlife even as their own lives become busier. The nets repel mosquitoes for four to five years, but must be replaced after that time. And thousands of people still lack protection.
“Andy and I are dedicated to continuing this project for as long as we can,” Matthews said. “We have a finite amount of time and energy while we’re on this planet, so I try to look for projects where I can have the most impact.”
For more information, to donate or see a video of Jesse Matthews dancing, visit www.netlifeafrica.org.