Story by Mat Edelson
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.”)
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