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Taking the Malaria Fight Down to the Community Level

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Malaria remains one of the most widespread infectious diseases in Africa. Yet, insecticide treated nets are available. Medicines are available. Prevention education is available -- but to everyone? The reality is that in many remote areas, none of these are accessible. Compassion International intentionally works through the local church in communities and neighborhoods around the world in order to bridge that gap and reach remote areas where people suffer from lack of access and where children, vulnerable to this disease, suffer most.

In the 26 countries Compassion serves, malaria intervention plays a major part in our work because of its far-reaching, overwhelming effects on a large number of children. And because of its global reach and consequences, we have purposed an effective strategy based on education, prevention and intervention to combat it.

Sidney Muisyo, Compassion's Regional Vice President for Africa, says, "We want our malaria program to be holistic, just like the rest of Compassion's ministry. We know that bed nets are crucial in the fight against malaria, but we also know that a person cannot live under a bed net all the time. So we educate children and their families about issues like how to minimize the likelihood of mosquitos coming into their homes and how to avoid creating mosquito breeding grounds. By doing so we are filling in the gaps left by bed net distribution alone."

While enough nets have been distributed to cover nearly 80 percent of the at-risk people in sub Saharan Africa, just making bed nets available does not necessarily mean that they will be used correctly. Some people we've observed have used the nets as window curtains.

Compassion's malaria intervention strategy is different in that that we not only distribute nets to our sponsored children, but also provide education on using the nets, recognizing the symptoms of malaria, its dangers and risks, and how to prevent the illness. The results monitored on a community-to-community basis are encouraging.

In Togo, West Africa, malaria is the leading cause of death among its citizens. Compassion provided 4,555 nets, as well as education, to the parents of children at 20 Compassion child development centers. The attending physician at one Compassion child development center located in a malaria affected area said that the average number of children visiting the clinic each month for malaria treatment dropped from 40 to about six.

In Bangladesh, where 13 of its 64 districts are malaria prone, Compassion worked within these communities to educate people on malaria intervention, including the proper use of bed nets, recognizing symptoms and the importance of removing trash and stagnant water from their homes. Some had not heard of insecticide treated nets -- and none of them could afford one. Compassion ensured they received two per household. In fact, more than 15,000 bed nets were distributed last year.

In Uganda, more than 27,000 nets were distributed to Compassion beneficiaries last year. While approximately 35 percent of Ugandan households have bed nets, 68 percent of Compassion households in Uganda have bed nets. Because of this outreach, in the final three months of 2011, Compassion Uganda saw a 50 percent decrease in malaria cases among their sponsored children.

Aside from the obvious danger malaria poses, the disease takes a large economic toll on people living in poverty. Malaria can decrease the gross domestic product by as much as 1.3 percent in countries with high prevalence of the disease. In Africa alone, the disease costs $12 billion in lost productivity. And, while the cost of care attributed to malaria is one percent of the income of affluent families, it is 34 percent of the household income for people living below the poverty line.

But, in Compassion's world, the cost of malaria in the lives of children is almost immeasurable. Not only do one in five African children die from this disease, but for those who survive, school absenteeism can affect their cognitive development and education levels. And of course, no one would argue that education plays a significant role in a person's future income.

The cycle continues unless critical prevention strategies, such as those being used by Compassion International, are implemented. By working through the local church, we reach those remote communities and people who may otherwise be forgotten. Our country staff members know the details of each child and family Compassion serves and can intervene when necessary to ensure they are protected from this widespread disease.

In the wake of World Malaria Day, we are encouraged by the great gains being made to eradicate malaria; inspired by our staff who work tirelessly to ensure children and families are protected; and steadfastly committed to the challenge that remains.