BACKGROUND: As the disease burden in the Gambia has reduced considerably over the last decade, heterogeneity in malaria transmission has become more marked, with infected but asymptomatic individuals maintaining the reservoir. The identification, timely diagnosis and treatment of malaria-infected individuals are crucial to further reduce or eliminate the human parasite reservoir. This ethnographic study focused on the relationship between local beliefs of the cause of malaria and treatment itineraries of suspected cases.
METHODS: An ethnographic qualitative study was conducted in twelve rural communities in the Upper River Region and the Central River Region in the Gambia. The data collection methods included in-depth interviews, participant observation, informal conversations, and focus group discussions.
RESULTS: While at first glance, the majority of people seek biomedical treatment for 'malaria', there are several constraints to seeking treatment at health centres. Certain folk illnesses, such as Jontinooje and Kajeje, translated and interpreted as 'malaria' by healthcare professionals, are often not considered to be malaria by local populations but rather as self-limiting febrile illnesses--consequently not leading to seeking care in the biomedical sector. Furthermore, respondents reported delaying treatment at a health centre while seeking financial resources, and consequently relying on herbal treatments. In addition, when malaria cases present symptoms, such as convulsions, hallucinations and/or loss of consciousness, the illness is often interpreted as having a supernatural aetiology, leading to diagnosis and treatment by traditional healers.
CONCLUSION: Although malaria diagnostics and treatment-seeking in the biomedical sector has been reported to be relatively high in the Gambia compared to other sub-Saharan African countries, local symptom interpretation and illness conceptions can delay or stop people from seeking timely biomedical treatment, which may contribute to maintaining a parasite reservoir of undiagnosed and untreated malaria patients.