Huffpost WorldPost
John Bridgeland Headshot

New Hope in Africa to End Malaria

Posted: Updated:

Earlier this year, President Obama went to his father's home continent and issued this simple statement "Africa's future is up to Africans." He made the compelling case that American compassion through development aid was short-sighted unless it led to transformational change fueled by improved governance, emerging civil society, economic prosperity, and peaceful resolution of conflict in African countries. As one example of hope, he highlighted the power of Christians and Muslims in Nigeria working side-by-side to end malaria, combat poverty, and foster peace among people who worship different prophets.

Today in Abuja, Nigeria, part of his vision is being fulfilled. The Sultan of Sokoto, the most powerful Islamic leader who represents 70 million Muslims, and the Archbishop of Abuja, his counterweight among Christians, are launching an effort to train 300,000 imams, priests, pastors and ministers to carry the malaria prevention message to villages throughout Nigeria. Every day is urgent.

Malaria is a disease of sad contradiction - it is fully preventable and treatable, yet it kills about 1 million people every year, mostly pregnant women and children in Sub-Saharan Africa. It can be stopped with tools we already have - bed nets and spraying of homes that protect families from the mosquitoes that transmit the disease, preventive treatment for pregnant women, and miracle drugs that cure malaria.

The troops to eliminate malaria are on the march. In the last decade, an unbreakable syndicate of hope has emerged - including a new Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Bank, the President's Malaria Initiative, the Gates Foundation, and others - which is investing billions to end malaria deaths in Africa by 2015. Nobel Prize winning economists make the case, as does Bill Gates, that malaria control is one of the best investments to ensure a country's economic growth. Africa loses at least $12 billion in GDP every year from the ravages of malaria - for a fraction of that cost, we could end it.

As the President has recognized, the traditional approach of rich countries sending aid to poor countries will not work. We need African political leaders to engage, civil society to emerge and sustainable health systems to be supported. All are underway in Africa on the issue of malaria.

At the United Nations General Assembly, Heads of State from 22 African countries created a new "African Leaders Against Malaria Alliance" to ensure their governments are meeting commitments to distribute nets, spray, and treatments according to schedule and are engaging all sectors in the fight. President Kikwete of Tanzania and President Kagame of Rwanda are two of many leaders who are making the elimination of malaria signature efforts across their cabinets. They are wise - we need both ministers of health who control health systems and ministers of finance who dispense resources.

Faith-based and other leaders in civil society throughout Africa are emerging from the grassroots to ensure that nets are used properly in homes and villagers know the warning signs of malaria so they get help in a timely fashion. The distribution of 30 million bed nets to 60 million households across Nigeria must be accompanied by campaigns to ensure they are properly hung and used.

Investments in malaria are the boldest strike against under-5 child mortality and maternal illness and death. About 125,000 children under 5 in 10 African countries have been saved from malaria over the last seven years, most of them in the last two years. In Rwanda, child malaria deaths declined 66 percent and in Zambia all-cause child mortality decreased 35 percent. Malaria afflicts 50 million pregnant women annually, while use of bed nets alone by pregnant women has been tied to nearly 40 percent reductions in incidence of the malaria parasite and almost 50 percent drop in malarial anemia.

Investments in malaria also strengthen health systems. You can see it with your own eyes. In health clinics throughout Rwanda, beds full of malaria patients four years ago are now largely empty, freeing up resources to diagnose, prevent and treat other diseases, leaving behind more health care workers, information systems, and rapid diagnostics that can be used for multiple purposes.

The future of Africa is indeed up to Africans and from Presidents to villagers, they are emerging across nationalities and faiths to tackle this centuries-old disease. In the process, they are likely to end deaths from malaria on the continent, unleash a generation of young people who can fuel economic prosperity, and bring new hope for a more peaceful Africa.

John M. Bridgeland is Vice Chairman of Malaria No More and Senior Advisor to the United Nations Special Envoy for Malaria.