April 25th, 2012 will be World Malaria Day. Stomping Out Malaria in Africa (a Peace Corps initiative), USAID, The Presidents Malaria Initiative, Malaria No More, Peace Corps Volunteers and their counterparts in 22 African countries have declared April Blog About Malaria Month (BAMM). Volunteers will be using BAMM, Blog About Malaria Month, and Every Child Deserves a 5th Birthday as blog titles. Those using twitter to raise awareness will be using #StompOutMalaria, #BAMM2012, and @StompOutMalaria. Facebook badges with the month’s logo can be downloaded here. A list of participating blogs (updated daily) can be found here.
Plasmodium is a perfectly eradicable parasite. Countries around the world (including my own) have eliminated this malaria spreading parasite completely. It is possible to end this – in our lifetime. What we need are not slogans about African Illnesses, emotional appeals to Save Those In Need, or personal campaigns to Guilt Everyone Into Donating Money. My neighbors here in Senegal are working diligently to protect themselves from infection. The ministry of health is wrapping up a Universal Bed Net Distribution Campaign that will have provided mosquito nets, at no cost, to every family and for every sleeping space in the country. Pilot programs using Indoor Residual Spraying are being rolled out across the country. Beginning this month, every pregnant women will be given a free net when she comes in for her first pre-natal visit. Nets will be available at a subsidized cost (one tenth their actual cost, or about one US dollar) for all. Rapid Diagnostic Tests are now available at every level of the Senegalese health structure. Artemisinin-based Combined Therapy (ACT) malaria drugs are available to cure each and every infected individual. Not everyone has received a bed net (as the campaign was far from perfect), not everyone knows that malaria is a parasite-born disease, how it is transmitted, or that it can be completely eliminated. No matter how cheap nets, chemical spraying, and drugs are, people will have difficulty affording them. It is difficult to educate an entire populace when mass media’s reach is limited. Current efforts to eradicate the parasite in Senegal are proving that these realities are not, in fact, crippling: they are galvanizing communities throughout the country.
Religious leaders appalled by malaria-related death rates are including appeals to sleep safely under mosquito nets in their nightly calls to prayer. Senegalese pop-stars like Akon, Youssou N’Dour, and Vivian have partnered with the non-profit organization Malaria No More to broadcast television and radio spots every night at 9 o’clock that ask “Its 9 o’clock, are you and your family safe underneath your mosquito nets?” A recent survey on the culture of bed bet use, by the non-profit group Networks, shows that families who have received bed nets value them in ways not seen before they were widely available. Peace Corps Volunteers are working on bed bet repair and exhibiting different innovative means to modify nets so as to be more easily hung. Local women’s groups are being trained to make a tree leaf-based, natural insect repellant that can be used between the evening hours when malaria-bearing mosquitoes begin feeding, and bedtime. Community health workers across the country are paying household visits to explain why nets are important, demonstrating how to hang them properly, and explaining how the parasite is spread.
Malarial deaths in Senegal will fall. Proof that effective malaria campaigns at the government level can drastically reduce and even eliminate the parasite can be seen on maps that compare and contrast Senegal and the Gambia. We can evaluate gains made since universal coverage campaigns began, measure the effectiveness of indoor residual spraying, test different mosquito repellant formulas, and work to make treatment available to all – but the most important thing Senegalese people do for themselves has to do with solidarity. Entire communities are standing up to declare that each and every individual is responsible for the next: if one person gets malaria, they are a danger to everyone around them. I feel privileged to be alive and working in a time and place where there is so much energy, so much change, and such potential.
April 25th is World Malaria Day – celebrate gains made and support efforts to continue work to end this - in our lifetime.