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Fight Against Malaria 2020

Q&A with Anyika Onuora, Olympic Medalist and British sprint, track and field athlete

Anyika Onuora contracted malaria while visiting family in Lagos, Nigeria. On her return, with no symptoms, she set off on holiday to the Dominican Republic. Partway through her holiday, she begun to feel unwell and ended the trip early, heading back to her training camp in Loughborough. Two days later she was admitted to hospital, her life was hanging in the balance; Anyika’s body was shutting down. In that moment, the actions of the NHS doctors and nurses saved Anyika’s life. The impact of the disease did not deter Anyika; after teaching herself to walk again, within ten months, she was collecting an Olympic Bronze medal in the 4x400m relay. 

Malaria No More UK spoke to Anyika about her road to recovery and her message to the Healthcare Heroes that helped to save her life.  

At what moment did you release ‘this is serious’?  

When I returned from holiday, I felt unwell, but my symptoms were intermittent. I was very focused on my running and wanted to keep training. However, dizziness, dark urine and sweats followed me through the next couple of days. I knew, around seven days after returning from Lagos, that something was seriously wrong – I had to get help. I’m not sure how, but I managed to drive myself to hospital. I collapsed in the reception and was taken straight in.   

When I was first admitted, I remember one of the nurses who was from the DRC quickly identifying the symptoms as malaria. She knew what to do because she had seen it so many times before. My temperature was incredibly high. They covered me in ice and the team kept me under constant watch while they tried to bring my temperature down.  

The pain was unbearable. I was also exhausted but wasn’t allowed to sleep in case I lost consciousness. Eventually my temperature started to come down. The days following were dark and long.  

How did it feel when you won your Olympic Medal? 

After my experience with malaria, I was so focused on returning stronger and fitter. You always question yourself, can I do it? It would be my third time attempting to medal at the Olympics. But, ten months after the ordeal, I was in the best shape of my life. My Olympic medal, and how I went about it, is the biggest achievement of my life.  

What did you learn from the experience? 

First, anyone can catch malaria. I was taking steps to reduce my exposure but still caught it. I was incredibly fit, healthy and well. It still nearly killed me.  

Second, my sporting mentality means I love winning, but from every loss or set back you learn a lesson. I knew I had to take time to recover and it was the first time in my life that I properly asked for and accepted help.  

Finally, what’s your message to the doctors and nurses that looked after you? 

Simply put, thank you. I owe my life to the NHS. Not only did the doctors and nurses save my life through medical intervention, they provided vital comfort in moments where I thought I was going to die. They cared for me in every way and kept my mind in good spirits.  

Anyika Onuora is a Special Ambassador for Malaria No More UK. 

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