Net Gains

You needn't be Bill Gates to make a difference
June 3, 2008

Julia had cornmeal and black tea for dinner. Her family couldn't afford a balanced diet.

After eating, she rubbed her eyes and whispered to her mother that she wanted to go to bed. "I feel a little weak," she said. As Julia fell asleep, a host of female Anopheles mosquitoes made their way through the holes in the net over her bed. They lingered over her, feeding on the blood in her arm and injecting her with parasites.

In the next six days, Julia had fever and chills. She experienced sweating episodes and ached in every joint of her body -- the onset of malaria.

There's no way to tell for sure how she caught it. It also could have been when she slept at an aunt's house with no net at all. When you're poor and live in Kenya's Great Rift Valley, there are many opportunities to catch malaria.

If not diagnosed or treated, malaria can kill. Julia received prompt medical attention, and her hospital bill was paid; she is one of the fortunate ones.

As World Malaria Awareness Day approached on April 25, few people in the United States knew the deadly toll the disease exacts. We wiped out malaria in this country in the 1930s, but it still claims millions of lives around the globe, mostly in Africa.

The statistics, according to UNICEF, are:

  • Each year, 350 million to 500 million people get malaria.
  • Nearly everyone in tropical Africa has a malaria episode each year.
  • Malaria kills more than 1 million people every year.
  • African children younger than 5 account for 75 percent of the deaths.

For every child who dies, hundreds more become sick or incapacitated, often missing school and other opportunities.

If you live in the United States, such conditions are hard to understand. A trip to Africa would open up your eyes, as it
did mine, when I recently traveled with Compassion International.

I've looked in the eyes of children who should be laughing and playing, going to school, learning to read -- sharing their gifts as God intended his precious little ones to do. Instead, they're sick -- many dying because of diseases
that are totally preventable.

Malaria is one of those diseases. It's a plague of the poor, easy for us to overlook when children in this country don't suffer from it.

Only in the past few years has malaria captured the full attention of aid agencies and people of influence. Microsoft's Bill Gates has called malaria "the worst thing on the planet" and donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the cause.

Dr. Arata Kochi, the head of the World Health Organization's malaria operations in Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda and Zambia, said: "In Ethiopia alone, the amount of childhood malaria reported at clinics fell by 60 percent -- the death rate cut in half -- within two years of beginning a mass distribution of mosquito nets."

But many poor African families cannot afford to buy mosquito nets treated with insecticide or to use other preventive measures to avoid contracting the disease. And when they are infected, most families can't afford medical treatment.

Here in the United States, we don't even think twice about malaria. Mothers and fathers don't go to bed every night worrying about whether something as small as a mosquito will change their lives or, even worse, steal life from their babies. Families living in developing countries deserve that same kind of assurance.

It costs only about $10 to buy a child a mosquito bed net treated with insecticide. You don't have to be Bill Gates to make a difference.

To respond to this column, email [email protected]. We welcome your own commentary.

 


 

Buy a net through ERD
Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), working in partnership with Anglican and other ecumenical partners, is distributing long-lasting, insecticide-treated nets to the most vulnerable, building awareness about malaria and training community leaders to teach prevention and treatment methods.

NetsforLife is an ERD-supported partnership to prevent malaria in 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. By the end of 2007, NetsforLife had distributed 664,117 of the nets and reached more than 1.3 million people with malaria-prevention messages.

To learn more about this effort, visit http://www.netsforlifeafrica.org/. To purchase a life-saving net for a family in need, visit ERD's Gifts for Life online store at http://www.er-d.org/. Mosquito nets cost $12, with $6 paying for the net and $6 supporting training and malaria prevention.

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