04/25/2011 01:05 am ET Updated Jun 24, 2011

What Would Jesus Do (About Malaria)?

Mama Rose Nambing lives alone in her community in a small village in Kasumgami, Democratic Republic of the Congo. No one speaks to her, and people avoid her.

Mama Rose has lost her entire family, seven children and her husband, to malaria. Her isolation is because people are afraid they might be touched by the same fate.

As she explains these deaths, she gazes into the distance. She did not know malaria comes from mosquitoes. She did not know mosquitoes breed in standing water. She did not know the fever her loved ones experienced was the forerunner to even worse effects of this deadly disease, which takes a child every 45 seconds in Africa.

Now Mama Rose is alone.

But across the continent, mothers just like her continue to cradle sick children and watch them grow worse, as the malaria parasite attacks their bodies. And, if treatment isn't swift, these mothers watch their babies die.

As a follower of Jesus, I can't help but imagine if he were physically present in Kasumgami today he would be handing out bed nets and teaching people how to avoid malaria. His storytelling would include instruction about how to save the lives of the children.

And I can't help but think he was speaking about Mama Rose and others who share her experience when he told his followers to care for the sick as the gospel of Matthew records (Matthew 25:36).

A thread woven throughout most of the world's major religions is that love of God is always linked with love of neighbor.

When John Wesley, the leader of the Methodist movement, saw his following grow, he instructed them to include a dispensary for medicines in their meeting houses for those who could not afford to purchase them otherwise.

I believe faith equips us to grow personally in our understanding of God and God's grace, and it equips us to mobilize for mission and service -- to stand with Mama Rose and those who are otherwise overlooked, left out, vulnerable or forgotten.

As the world recognizes World Malaria Day, the infection rate in Africa is still a heavy burden, despite encouraging progress toward reducing the effects of the disease. Each year, 300 million to 500 million people are still infected. The men will be unable to work, mothers unable to care for children, children unable to study and many will die.

Insecticide-treated bed nets are proving to be a cost-effective, simple way to prevent malaria. Nets can prevent malaria transmission by 50 percent or higher when used properly and cared for.

Beyond nets, religious humanitarian organizations are doing myriad other activities to bring about change. They are:

• Encouraging income-generating work so that people can afford to replace the nets.
• Aiding environmental reclamation and water management to reduce breeding places for mosquitoes.
• Training community health workers to recognize and treat symptoms at the outset of the disease.
• Constructing community health clinics.
• Rehabilitating hospitals.
• Conducting communications programs to inform mothers and fathers about how the disease is contracted, what they can do to prevent it and how to recognize it before their children are too sick to respond to medications.

The work of faith-based groups like The United Methodist Church's Imagine No Malaria initiative is important. Many churches are in the bush beyond the end of the road, where health programs don't reach people. Religious leaders are trusted and can encourage communities to undertake the changes necessary to prevent malaria. And they can reassure the community about the value of nets and medications.

The global community needs to address the long-term neglect of national health systems and support for their overworked personnel. We must continue to support research into potential immunization and effective treatment, and improve salaries of competent health personnel so they don't seek jobs in the developed world.

The challenge to religious people and the global community today is to make this disease history.

The challenge is to answer the question, "When you saw Mama Rose, did you not see me?"