By Carolyn Woo
As anyone who has tried to hold a cookout in the summer knows, mosquitoes are inventive and resilient pests, requiring significant resourcefulness if you are going to keep them from spoiling the fun.
In many parts of the world, keeping mosquitoes at bay is not just a matter of comfort, it is a matter of life and death: these insects carry a variety of diseases, most notably malaria.
April 25 is World Malaria Day. It is a time to celebrate the progress made in the fight against this disease, but it also time to renew our commitment to eradicating the killer of at least 650,000 people worldwide in 2010 — though some researchers say the figure may be twice that, 1.2 million. Almost all, 92 percent, of these deaths were in Africa and nearly two-thirds were of children under the age of 5.
Despite these grim statistics, progress is being made: deaths linked to malaria have declined since 2004, a period that corresponds with the scale up of the global response.
The fight is multi-pronged. The headlines often go to the work in the laboratories of the most prestigious medical research facilities in the world as scientists look, ultimately, for a vaccine. Often overlooked are simple, inexpensive interventions that are making real strides against malaria today:
• A long-lasting, insecticide-treated mosquito net, when used properly, is very effective in reducing the transmission of malaria — and it only costs around $5.
• Medicines to treat uncomplicated malaria cost only about 75 cents per dose, and rapid diagnostic tests can be used by community volunteers to diagnose the disease early on when it is easier to treat.
Such programs are making progress against malaria in some of the poorest countries in the world, the countries where malaria is still endemic, the countries where Catholic Relief Services works. And CRS is employing the same kind of resourcefulness and resilience that all of those involved in this fight need to win it.
Bed nets work because mosquitoes are most active after dark and prey on people as they sleep. Bed net programs initially targeted pregnant women and children under the age of 5, some of the most vulnerable to malaria. Millions have been distributed. We know the importance of ensuring that everyone is sleeping under one of these nets; millions more need to be distributed.
But it is not just a matter of handing out the nets and hoping for the best. For one thing, just getting the bed nets to some remote areas is a logistical challenge. But even more important, people must be educated in how to use the nets.
Throughout West Africa, CRS is using innovative practices to distribute bed nets and medicine and ensure that they are used properly. In The Gambia, CRS is working through the traditional village social structure called Kabilo.
In this project funded by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, village leaders are first consulted and then asked to appoint representatives — male and female — who will lead the bed net program in their communities. The fact that these people come from the Kabilo structure gives them standing in their villages that adds a credibility to their message that would be lacking if it came from outside. The approach is proving effective in getting more people to use the nets correctly.
In Niger, where CRS has distributed 3 million bed nets, mobile caravans have been used to travel between remote communities and conduct multimedia events on the importance of proper mosquito net usage. Since these educational events have taken place, there has been a significant increase in the number of people using the nets.
People also need access to medications to treat malaria if they become infected. In Benin, the Global Fund is supporting CRS’ Palu Alafia project — meaning “relief from malaria” in a local language — to distribute inexpensive anti-malaria medication to young children within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. Working with the Ministry of Health, CRS has trained local and community health workers, getting medications to hundreds of thousands of children and reaching some of the most remote areas of the country.
These are only a few of the programs that CRS supports in the fight against malaria. This is a fight that is being won.
On this World Malaria Day, let us redouble our commitment to eradicating this pernicious disease.
Carolyn Woo is president of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic community in the United States.