April 25, 2017

A Malaria-Free Generation Is Within Our Reach

By Megan Rabbitt

More than 400,000 people died from malaria in 2015 – from a preventable, treatable disease caused by nothing more than a mosquito bite. For those of us lucky enough to consider mosquitos a harmless, albeit itchy nuisance, that’s hard to comprehend. Even harder: every two minutes a child dies from malaria in sub-Saharan Africa.

But despite these grim statistics, there is reason for hope. Today, we are closer than we have ever been to a malaria-free generation. In less than two decades, global mortality rates have fallen by over 60 percent and more children are surviving to celebrate their fifth birthday. In the last five years alone, the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets in Africa has increased by a whopping 80 percent. Not surprisingly, as the use of bed nets has increased, malaria transmissions have decreased across the African continent. The rate of new malaria cases fell by more than 20 percent, while mortality rates dropped by over 30 percent during the same five year period.

Just a decade ago, an African child died from malaria every thirty seconds – making this remarkable progress hard to imagine. Back in 2006, President George W. Bush declared: “The goal of defeating malaria is a challenging goal, yet it can be done. It’s not going to require a miracle. It just requires a smart, sustained, focused effort.” He was right. And it’s in large part because of the smart, sustained, and focused efforts of the United States and partner organizations like Malaria No More, that we are closer than ever before to the day when no man, woman, or child dies from a mosquito bite.

From expanding access to life-saving diagnostics and anti-malarial treatments, to distributing millions of bed nets, to educating entire communities – Malaria No More has helped to put malaria on notice across the African continent.

In Cameroon – where all 23 million people are at risk of contracting the disease – Malaria No More has teamed up with the Peace Corps and others to roll out a creative and highly-effective public health campaign known as NightWatch. By enlisting the help of Cameroonian celebrities, NightWatch has produced hit pop songs to spread the word about the importance of avoiding – and treating – malaria. And that’s not all. NightWatch even sends text messages reminding Cameroonians to sleep under bed nets. All told, the campaign has reached 7 out of 10 Cameroonians with critical, life-saving information.

Knowledge is power – and it’s the first step to eradicating a disease as stubborn as malaria. But as more people are armed with the knowledge to head to local clinics, those clinics must be prepared to treat them. After all, what good does it do for a mother to recognize malaria in her sick child, if her local clinic doesn’t have the means to treat the child? Fortunately, Malaria No More is working with U.S. government partners and others to implement SMS for Life in Cameroon – a program that enables rural health workers to compile inventory reports using basic mobile phones. This ensures that the government has real-time information about which clinics need to be re-stocked, and when.

And this World Malaria Day – which falls during World Immunization Week – we have extra cause for celebration: scientists are in the process of developing a highly promising malaria vaccine. With vaccinations anticipated to begin in Africa next year as a part of the World Health Organization’s pilot program, the world is on the precipice of gaining another powerful tool in the fight against malaria. We aren’t the first generation to bear the burden of malaria – one of the oldest and deadliest diseases on earth – but we are well on our way to being the last.

Photo: A Senegalese girl stands beneath an insecticide-treated mosquito net. PMI / Maggie Hallahan.