Three feet of rope, four nails and a blue net all wrapped inside a plastic bag may not seem like they can save lives. However, these tools - along with the partnership between members of Civil Affairs Team 4905, government and non-government organizations - can impede the spread of malaria in Ethiopia.
CAT 4905, assigned to Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa, distributed 18,000 packs of insecticide-treated bed nets, rope and nails to Ethiopians in Samaro and Debaka, Debobesa, here March 15 and 16.
"We are in the Abaya Wordea, which is one of the most (malaria-infected) regions during this time of year in the country of Ethiopia, so obviously there is a great need to fight malaria in this area," said U.S. Army Corporal Benjamin Whiddon, a Houston, Texas native and CAT 4905 team medic. "One of the primary ways to fight malaria is prevention. One great way to prevent malaria is the use of bed nets, which we are distributing here."
The rainy season causes a mixed reaction among many Ethiopians, said Gobena Guye, local health office worker and malaria prevention coodinator, from Guanga, Ethiopia. Farmers appreciate rain, as it nourishes crops and provides the harvest, but for other Ethiopians, the rain signifies a larger mosquito population near bodies of water, said Guye.
CAT 4905 Team Leader U.S. Army Captain Charles Varner, of Los Angeles, said irregular weather patterns delayed the rains this year. When the rains do come, people in this region expect a "gigantic spike in the cases of malaria," he said.
To quell this spike, members of the 4905 CAT worked with Ethiopians, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the organization Communication for Change to execute Operation: MASH.
"Operation: MASH stands for 'Malaria in Abaya Stops Here.' When you call this a 'bed net distribution,' you are really over-simplifying what we're doing," said U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Melissa McGaughey, CAT 4905 team sergeant of Fort Worth, Texas.
According to Ethiopian government studies, people do have insecticide-treated bed nets, yet they are still contracting malaria.
"The problem is they don't know how to properly employ those nets (or how to avoid the disease)," said McGaughey.
Through additional information on how to recognize malaria symptoms and employ nets in their homes, the Ethiopians are getting more tools they need to slow the malaria epidemic, said McGaughey.
Ethiopian workers provided initial training on malaria prevention at a centralized location. Afterward, the trainees put out the schedule of the training and bed net distribution in their local communities, allowing hundreds of Ethiopians to receive the information and nets.
Empowering Ethiopians to protect themselves against this disease would not be possible without the partnership between the Ethiopian organizations and the Americans, said McGaughey.
Programs, such as the U.S.-funded President's Malaria Initiative, provide bed nets to Ethiopia. However, some of the austere locations have no way of receiving these supplies. This is where the civil affairs team comes in.
"(We transport the nets) the last mile and into the hands of people who really need them," said Varner. "This is something that only CJTF-HOA is able to do in southern Ethiopia."
"Without the non-governmental organization community, we wouldn't have the Communication for Change piece," said McGaughey. "Without the government of Ethiopia, the people wouldn't know we're coming. Without us, the nets would never get there. The partnership is the best take-away from this. We can fully address the problem instead of giving a partial answer."
Ethiopians involved in the program said the training, coupled with distribution, creates a positive outcome for the Ethiopian people.
"I enjoy my work," said Azenegash Haire, a veteran health station worker from Hageramariam, Ethiopia, who trained hundreds of Ethiopians on bed net employment. "I believe it is working and it is effective."
The training and net distribution is fantastic, said Bayissa Urgesa, an Ethiopian Communication for Change community organization manager. With USAID and C-Change working with CJTF-HOA, participation in malaria prevention increased remarkably. "We really are saving lives," he said.
"We have been (in Ethiopia) for eight months," Whiddon said. "We've been looking forward to this for a long time now. It's a very rewarding process, and I am really happy to be a part of it. This is what deployments are all about. Not many people get this opportunity (and) I am very fortunate to be a part of it."
"If we're able to give (the Ethiopians) a means to protect themselves from getting sick, it's a good thing," said U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Chris Smith CAT 4905 communications non-commissioned officer and native of Dothan, Alabama. "It makes you feel good not just being here, but also (knowing) what your country is doing to help others."