Today is World Malaria Day, and I want to take a break from talking about me and talk instead about some other people.
About half the world’s population is at risk for malaria.(source)
See, malaria doesn’t affect me directly.
Thanks to Peace Corps, I have a good mosquito net treated with insecticide. In case that don’t keep me from being bitten by a malaria-carrying mosquito, I have a handy little pill that I take every morning, a prophylactic called malarone, that keeps me from developing a case. And, just in case I somehow still manage to contract malaria, I have a couple of do-it-yourself diagnostic kits and a round of malaria treatment, and, to be extra safe, I can get Peace Corps to come pick me up and take me to the infirmary, where trained medical staff will do a proper diagnosis and give me proper treatment and care until I’m well.
If everyone had the same benefits, we’d be done with malaria. But they don’t.
There are an estimated 212 million new cases of malaria every year, resulting in 429 thousand deaths.
During PST, my host mama got malaria. She was fortunate—the family is well enough off that they could afford treatment, and well enough off to be a single-income family, meaning that they didn’t directly lose income by her being unable to work for days on end. She recovered without any significant loss for her or the family.
For most people affected by malaria in Rwanda and other developing countries, the story is much different. They may not be able to travel to a clinic in the first place, much less afford diagnostic tests or treatment. During the time that they’re ill, they may lose income by being unable to work.
Many Rwandans are subsistence farmers, and if they cannot tend their crops, they face huge losses. Younger people may miss school—devastating in a culture where education is one of the key steps toward upward mobility.
All too often, a person with malaria dies.
80% of deaths from malaria are in children under five years old.(source)
Malaria may seem distant, but not that long ago, malaria was prevalent throughout Europe, northern Australia, most of Asia, and the western United States. In fact, as recently as the 1930s, around a million cases of malaria occurred annually in the U.S.
So what happened?
To put it plainly, well-off people in developed countries didn’t like malaria, and they did something about it.
They combined research, efficient infrastructure, and affordable medical care, and by the 1950s, we had wiped out malaria in the United States.
Malaria is the leading cause of death and disease in sub-Saharan Africa, and the most affected people are young children and pregnant women. (source)
Meanwhile in Africa, malaria is generally a question of “when,” not “if.” The people I’ve talked to refer to getting malaria the way we might refer to getting the flu—a bad thing that will probably happen to you once in a while.
Why are malaria and death from it so common here? A combination of factors contribute:
- The female Anopheles gambiae mosquito, which is the insect responsible for spreading the malaria parasite, lives here
- The type of malaria parasite most common here is Plasmodium falciparum—which also happens to be the type most likely to cause death
- The climate allows for year-round transmission
- The lack of resources and socio-economic stability makes it difficult to prevent and control the disease
Let me tell you a few ways this last item plays out.
- Lack of nets—One of the key prevention methods is the use of mosquito nets. Unfortunately, many people, especially poorer people in rural areas, don’t have access to nets and don’t have instruction on how to hang and maintain them. The government distributes nets, but there are always more people than available nets.
- Lack of diagnosis—Many people can’t afford to go get a blood test done, as I mentioned, and in some cases doctors are not properly trained on how to perform the tests or analyse the results.
- Lack of treatment—Many people cannot afford medicine.
- Lack of accurate information—Information about malaria and its prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and effects may not be available for many people. In some cases misinformation is spread, leading to inaccurate ideas about the disease.
There is a strong correlation between poverty and malaria. In Africa, only half of people suspected to have malaria actually receive a diagnostic test. (source)
But should you really care about malaria? There are about a zillion different good causes floating around demanding your attention, and you don’t have the time or energy to care about all of them.
I think the answer is yes—malaria deserves your attention.
Here are a few reasons you should be invested in the fight to eradicate malaria:
- Malaria eradication is not another hopeless cause. Malaria is preventable. It’s occurrence and mortality rates are falling steadily—between 2000 and 2015, for example, mortality rates among children fell by 65%, according to UNICEF, and in 2018 the world’s first malaria vaccine will be administered in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.
- Malaria affects children. I’m not pulling a poverty-porn move on you; I’m asking you to think about the future of our world. Children will grow up to effect changes, to develop their countries, to participate in politics and economics and science and everything else. My students love to discuss ways to develop their country, help the ecosystem, and make a better world—but if huge numbers of children are dying before they turn five from a totally preventable disease, who will be our future?
- Malaria could come back to the U.S. I don’t think this is a good reason to care, or even a particularly likely occurrence, but if you need a reason that it could affect you directly, here it is. The US has climates suitable to malaria transmission and there are instances of malaria in the US, even among people who haven’t travelled to malaria-prone countries.
- Malaria is expensive. It is estimated to cost up to 1.3% of African GDP and its costs include travel, medical supplies, public health interventions, lost labour, lost opportunities for tourism, and, sadly, burial expenses. More than that, it costs the global economy. When one country improves, everyone wins, and ending malaria would offer opportunities for development of new markets around the world.
- Malaria evolves. The parasites continue to become resistant to various treatments. The longer we take to deal with this problem, the harder it gets to solve.
The good news is that there are small, significant things you can do to help end malaria.
One way is to donate to an organisation that works toward prevention and treatment of the disease. Here are three:
Malaria No More works to distribute nets and diagnostic tests in Africa
Nothing But Nets distributes mosquito nets—for $10 you can send a net to someone at risk for malaria
The Global Fund works with local experts in preventing, treating, and eradicating AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in affected countries
Another way is to spread awareness. I know you’re not all activists, but consider sharing a link to a malaria prevention organisation on your social media today in honour of World Malaria Day.
Better quality of life anywhere makes a better world for all of us. It sounds cheesy, but I believe it.