12/09/2009 06:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Sultan and the Archbishop: Joining Hands, Saving Lives

A truly remarkable initiative was kicked-off this week in Abuja, Nigeria. If successful, it will protect millions of young children and pregnant women whose lives are at daily risk of being snuffed out by a single bite of a malaria-carrying mosquito. There are 57 million cases of malaria in Nigeria each year, resulting in 300,000 deaths; 85% of the fatalities involve young children.

What's remarkable about the new initiative is its plan to mobilize and train at least 300,000 (and potentially one million) imams, priests, ministers and pastors who will carry to the most distant, isolated villages of Nigeria the public-health message that "insecticide-treated bed nets save lives." In a stroke of luck, the particular species of African mosquito that carries malaria and bites humans is active only after dark, which makes the insecticide-treated bed net a life-saving intervention. Indeed, the treated net not only serves as a physical barrier, but it kill mosquitoes on contact; the upshot is that, if 70% of the population of a village is sleeping under bed nets, the remaining 30% benefit as well due to the sharply reduced number of mosquitoes in the village.

At this week's event, the Sultan of Sokoto (Nigeria's most senior Muslim leader) and the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja joined hands to kick-off the training of an initial, core group of 100 faith leaders. Members of this core group plan to fan out across Nigeria, and each member will transmit the training to a cadre of their peers, each of whom, in turn, will train yet another group, and so it will go until at least 300,000 have been trained by the end of 2010. Pretty amazing stuff.

Not that this volunteer army doesn't have its work cut out. Many Nigerians, especially those in rural areas, believe that malaria is caused by too much work or too much sunshine; so, the faith-leaders first task will be as health-educators. And, that's not their only hurdle. Nigerians have lived with malaria for so many generations that they tend to accept it as a normal part of life; overcoming this complacency will be a challenge.

Notwithstanding these challenges, there's reason for considerable optimism about the interfaith campaign. At the kick-off event in Abuja, the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy for Malaria, Mr. Ray Chambers, said it best: "Working together, Nigeria's faith leaders have the credibility, influence, and reach to carry the message that 'bed nets save lives' to their nation's most distant villages. Their efforts will help ensure that the next generation of Nigeria's children will have the strength and good health to pursue their hopes and dreams."

Many experts believe that the Sultan's and the Archbishop's campaign--they've named it "Faiths United for Health"--will serve as a path-breaking model with broad applicability throughout Sub-Saharan Africa for instilling a cultural norm of valuing and embracing the consistent use of life-saving bed nets.