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Mission Man

David Colwell

Mission Man

Philip Thuma’s lifetime in rural Zambia makes him uniquely qualified to combat malaria. But can his wildly successful model work without the man himself?

The numbers are stark: what they represent, potentially incredible.

In a tiny corner of southern Zambia, more than a day’s walk from the nearest hint of a modern town, malaria has gone from a scourge to almost—but not quite—a memory. In fact, the figures coming out of this bush area known as Macha would be unbelievable if they hadn’t occurred elsewhere before. In the 1950s in Sri Lanka, and the 1990s in Zimbabwe, malaria was brought to its knees through massive government control programs. But the moment those efforts ceased, the disease rallied to pre-control heights and far beyond.

By contrast, Philip Thuma and his colleagues have taken malaria from the leading cause of infant mortality in Macha to a place where they've reduced its prevalence by 98 percent— and those numbers have held for nearly seven years.

Which begs the question: What's so special about Macha ... and can its success ever be defined, let alone duplicated?

Soft-spoken by nature, Philip Thuma, MD, is humble in the extreme. It’s hard to get a rise out of the pediatrician. But there is one sure way: Ask him about the skeptics who admit that what’s happened in Macha is an extraordinary feat in malaria control—but dismiss it as a one-off, a statistical anomaly for which, they believe, it’s impossible to separate the scientist—Thuma—from the science. Never mind that the hospital his missionary father, Alvan, founded in 1957, and which runs almost entirely on Zambian government money (there is some church support, along with research dollars), is considered a first-rate institution. Or that during Philip Thuma’s time in Zambia, Macha Hospital, which services some 128,000 residents in a 35-km radius, has grown to 208 beds; and that the research facility he founded in 1997, the Malaria Institute at Macha, published 21 peer-reviewed articles within its first seven years of existence.

Despite these accomplishments, some raise an eyebrow at the fact that Thuma’s resume includes the words “missionary” yet lacks “PhD.” And they claim that Thuma and his work are intertwined beyond the point of unraveling, thus making the Macha experience useless elsewhere in malaria-ravaged, sub-Saharan Africa.

“Funders of malaria control research, a lot of them have come to Macha and they walk away saying, ‘This is great, but we don’t think this is reproducible,’” says the 60-year-old Thuma. “I obviously bristle at that, because I say, ‘we’re scientists. If something seems to work, instead of writing it off, don’t we instead analyze it and ask, ‘What are the key points?’ and then try to see which of those make a difference?”

To supporters and skeptics alike, one thing is clear: Philip Thuma is inextricably linked with the land and the people he serves. He is a doctor who is revered in his community, as was his father, before him. With a few exceptions—such as when he came to Johns Hopkins to complete his pediatric residency—he has spent the vast majority of his waking moments on these African plains (“Phil is an African. His life’s work is Africa,” says entomologist and Bloomberg School colleague Clive Shiff, who was born in what was then Rhodesia. “He’s as African as me.”)

Comments

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  • Kathleen Stuebing

    Ndola, Zambia 01/13/2011 01:32:27 AM

    This is an excellent article that accurately presents Macha and the incredible ways through which Dr. Phil Thuma has brought relief from malaria. Both of our children were born at Macha by Caesarean section, and I had no complications or infection, attesting to the quality of the medical care in the middle of the African bush. Now Dr. Thuma has added his malaria triumph, which your article describes so well. We eagerly await the time when malaria is controlled to such a degree where we live in urban Zambia. Our students and their children regularly suffer from malaria. This is a wonderful story of hope for all malaria ridden places, and it rightly honors the man who has given his life to pursuing this goal--Dr. Philip Thuma. Thank you.

  • Lee Nell

    Florida, USA 11/14/2012 12:14:32 PM

    Great article about a great man. Phil is a genius, in my opinion, the most unassuming person I've ever known considering the miracles he's accomplished so far, and, I'm proud to say, my brother-in-law. As the article notes, he is totally committed to the people in and around Macha and to eradicating this dread disease. As I've always said, my money is on the tenacious Phil Thuma to win that battle. Maybe then, and I'm sure only then, would he even consider accepting some credit for his success in the remarkable life's work he has undertaken. Maybe.

  • Juliet Laverley

    Sierra Leone 07/13/2013 11:52:01 AM

    This is great work it takes a special person to make this happen, I wish we can clone Dr. Thuma for other areas in west Africa. Is there opportunity for adoption of best practice and protocols from his experience and success for other African countries with similar challenges?

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Online Extras

Macha Slideshow

Fighting Malaria in Macha

Photographer David Colwell journeyed to Macha, Zambia and returned with images and sounds of malaria research and prevention.

Watch Now

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