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North Kitsap alum, med student uses spare time to halt malaria

POULSBO — North Kitsap High alum Jesse Matthews doesn’t have much extra time on his hands. Having just graduated from the St. Louis University School of Medicine, Matthews is clocking nearly 100 hours a week as a University of New Mexico Hospital resident specializing in internal medicine. He’s simultaneously working toward a master’s in public health.

But when the scrubs are off and the scalpel’s down, Matthews, 28, is weilding tools of a much different kind. Partnered with medical school classmate Andrew Sherman, Matthews is operating Netlife, a no-overhead, nonprofit organization that plugs each of its donated dollars into purchasing mosquito nets to help stop the spread of malaria. The disease fighting duo have been working for the cause since 2005.

“I hooked up with Andrew Sherman, my classmate at the time, and he and I started this organization and began fundraising, throwing concerts and asking everyone we knew for donations,” the 1998 NKHS graduate said. “We’re probably the cheapest way to get mosquito nets out there.”

At $5 a net — which Matthews said is roughly half the cost of many other organizations — he and Sherman not only collect, but deliver. They’ve traveled twice to Kedougou, a region of Senegal in western Africa. Between the two excursions, Netlife was able to distribute more than 1,700 nets. While there, Matthews and Sherman also held health education days, often speaking in the area’s native Pulaar language.

“It’s just two guys who go over,” Matthews said. “There’s no bureacy, no hiring of secretaries or paying for advertising.”

But despite the simplified effort, the impact is no less than great.

Malaria kills 1 million people each year; 90 percent of its victims live in sub-saharan Africa, and many of them are children. Mosquito nets are the best way to prevent the disease, but are often unaffordable or unavailable to those who need them.

Currently, 4,000 Netlife nets are being transported to the area to be dispersed by Peace Corps volunteers. In a phone interview Tuesday, Matthews said the shipment was awaiting unloading off the shore of Dakar.

He and Sherman follow certain principles when it come to net distribution: they find villages at greatest need by talking to local health officials and determining malaria rates, standing water issues and access to health care. For many villages, the nearest nurse is 20-40 miles away and there is just one bicycle for transportation. Once drop points are established, the Matthews and Sherman bike to the areas, educate villagers on health topics and teach them how to use the nets.

“And after that we have a party,” Matthews said with a laugh. People are often so happy to receive the nets, they celebrate by dancing.

“What really hits me is the mothers and the children who are so thankful for the nets. They really know how important it is,” he said. “We call out their name, write down their identity number and give them a net and you can just see in their face how happy they are.”

Though it’s hard to compile accurate statistics in the area, Matthews said their nets continue to be used, and fewer people are contracting malaria.

He and Sherman hope to take over another 2,000-4,000 nets in July 2009. Eventually, Matthews said he’d like to teach at a medical school and include his students in Netlife trips to Africa.

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