By Carolyn Woo
Malaria is an enormous and tragic problem -- that can be beat.
It takes the life of a child every minute in Sub-Saharan Africa, and a million people die from malaria each year. It also stifles economic development, as malaria prevents children from attending school and adults from working.
Today is World Malaria Day, and I am pleased to celebrate the lives saved and enriched by recent attention and investments. Not that many years ago, this would be an occasion for hand-wringing and lamenting the many victims of this disease and wishing we could get the world to do more. The problem seemed clear: Malaria was a disease of poor countries, and few were investing in the effort.
That has changed. A coordinated and concerted effort to eradicate malaria is currently under way, and it has had and will continue to have a profound effect if we all join the effort. For decades, malaria deaths were on the rise, reaching 1.8 million in 2004. Then came the international commitment to fight malaria, and a steep decline in deaths was realized, something unthinkable a generation ago.
In West Africa, The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria supports Catholic Relief Services' work with local partners in five countries. The main thrust is to distribute mosquito-proof nets, treated with insecticide, to protect children and pregnant women who sleep under them from the mosquitoes that carry the disease. In Niger, few households had bed nets in 1998, and only 50 percent of those that did were using them. A decade later, 80 percent have them, and educational campaigns are yielding close to an 80 percent usage rate.
CRS also trains community-based workers to identify malaria symptoms among children under the age of 5 to ensure treatment is provided, and all pregnant women in these communities are encouraged to receive malaria prevention medication at the nearest health center, protecting their health and that of their unborn children.
The nature of malaria transmission is its vulnerability. The disease travels from human to mosquito to human. If we can interrupt this transmission cycle, malaria no longer spreads, and it can be eradicated. Thus, fewer infections yield fewer opportunities for infected blood to be transmitted by mosquitoes to other individuals. In effect, success breeds success. This is what happened in the United States, where malaria was once common. It can happen in Africa as well.
But these gains can be lost. Transmission must be stopped for at least three consecutive years before the disease can be eliminated, and statistics from several countries in Africa demonstrate that when malaria programs were ended, the infection rate immediately rose.
Bill and Melinda Gates have invested in the fight against malaria, as has Michael Bloomberg. So now is the time to support the Roll Back Malaria partnership to invest in the future and defeat malaria. The Global Fund and the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative have joined the fight, as have many international nongovernmental organizations and governments.
Please join me in this fight, as your help is needed now.
Carolyn Woo is the president and CEO of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services and a member of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Her email is email@example.com.
This op-ed was published in The Baltimore Sun.