World Malaria Day 2012: A Critical Moment for Reversing Spread of Malaria

Faith leaders through the authority they hold, and the outreach and networks of their communities, can be powerful influences for the good in public health.
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Charles Dickens' depiction of Magwitch grabbing Pip has stuck in my mind and, I suspect, in the mind of generations of scared school boys who watched or read "Great Expectations." The Kent churchyard, with its "lozenge shaped" tomb stones, in "marsh country down by the river," is now firmly on the literary tourist trail during the Dickens 200th anniversary. But few visitors will know that the "marsh ague" that filled these graves was none other than malaria.

The inscriptions tell a story familiar to millions of Africans: "Mary died in infancy, William 8 months, William 7 months, Francis, 17 months, James, 4 months, Elizabeth, 3 months, William, 8 months." Seven children under five dead in 12 years, all between 1767-1779. The family must have so much wanted a William to live but it was not to be. Malaria was then, as it is now, a child killer.

In contrast their illustrious contemporary, George Washington, survived his first bout of malaria in Virginia -- it was at the age of 17 -- but suffered periodic attacks until 1798. The fifth President of the United States, James Monroe, also caught malaria in "marsh country down by the river," by the Mississipi in 1795. Escaping death by malaria seemed almost to be a qualification for America's early Presidents.

The notion that malaria in the "West" was only a scourge of the 18th century is far from the truth. Abraham Lincoln survived attacks during childhood. War was a great ally of the disease and American Presidents remained notable victims until after J.F. Kennedy, who caught the disease during the Second World War. He followed in the footsteps of Andrew Jackson in the Seminole campaigns in the Florida swamps. The discovery of quinine began to change the picture in the 1840s, though it was only by the 1890s that the poorest could get access to the drug in significant numbers. That did not stop many hundreds of American troops in southern Italy dying from malaria during the Second World War. The malaria parasite remained a minor scourge for America into living memory.

So it always came as a surprise to me when, on both sides of the Atlantic, my Faith Foundation reported back about our interfaith campaign against malaria deaths that people sometimes said "but we don't get malaria here." True enough but memories are short. Teddy Roosevelt caught malaria in 1914, James Garfield, 20th President, caught malaria in Ohio in 1848 when he was 16 years old. The Pontine marshes around Rome were lethal until Mussolini drained them -- mainly for political effect. And Dickens' stomping ground around Rochester, Kent makes the point with great poignancy.

The real point is that malaria was eradicated in the USA and UK because people realized that it was utterly preventable and set about preventing it with adequate resources to hand. And there are no reasons it cannot be eradicated in Africa and other endemic malarial areas too. Or rather there are several reasons all of which can be overcome with sufficient political will and application. It remains an entirely preventable disease.

World Malaria Day this year comes at a critical juncture for the massive global effort at malaria eradication. It has made extraordinary gains under the impact of some extraordinary people. I am thinking of Ray Chambers, the UN special malaria envoy, and, of course, Bill Gates. But there are countless lesser known champions against malaria deaths like Sheikh Conteh in Sierra Leone, Bishop Dinis Sengulane in Mozambique, Bishop Sunday Onuoha in Nigeria who are leading faith communities in national campaigns against the disease.

Faith leaders through the authority they hold, and the outreach and networks of their communities, can be powerful influences for the good in public health. Giving health messages and training others, just five malaria dos and don'ts to protect families, can, and does, save lives. I have seen this collaboration with Ministries of Health in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. It takes so little to protect the under-fives, an impregnated bed net, the knowledge of how to use it properly and cleaning up stagnant water. Two visits to the health clinic can save the lives of pregnant women who are particularly vulnerable.

Yet intensive national campaigns that reduce deaths significantly and open up the possibility of eradication cost money. International donors, the Global Fund and the US Presidents' Fund, make them possible. Under the impact of economic crisis they are faltering. Pledges are not being fulfilled. There is foot dragging. This could set the clock back and break the momentum across the world.

So World Malaria Day on 25 April highlights a critical year for achieving the most achievable of the Millennium Development Goals, halting and reversing the spread of malaria. We owe it to the Marys, Williams, Francis, James and Elizabeths of Africa not to reduce funding to the Global Fund, not to falter in this great endeavor.

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