11 March 2009

Attacking Malaria by Saving Lives With $2 Bednets


Malaria kills over a million people a year, yes one million! Last month, I walked out of my hotel and saw my local friend Steven lying under a palm tree, wracked in sweat and shaking violently. I didn’t have to ask him what the problem was; it was obvious he was in the midst of a malaria attack. Watching someone in the throes of an attack is a gruesome experience. Fortunately for Steven, I was able to help, but millions of others are not so lucky. After the one-celled malaria plasmodia have entered the body through the probiscus of a female mosquito, they travel to the victim’s liver, where they burrow themselves into liver cells. Over the course of a week, these parasites eat and multiply until they burst out of the cells and enter the bloodstream. Soon, the victim is gripped by anxiety, as though the body knows its immune system has been attacked. A sever fever and violent shivering are the body’s attempts to increase body temperature, in an attempt to kill off the parasites with heat. A sudden onset of chills quickly morphs into an intense sensation of bitter cold, even more traumatic for Africans that have never felt a cold winter’s chill before. They shake so hard and are so cold they often beg to be covered or smothered. Those without anyone to care for them or wrap them in blankets or coats simply collapse onto the ground, where they lie in a half-conscious state of convulsion. Hours later, when these painful, rhythmic waves of cold and pain have passed, the victim enters a debilitating period of exhaustion and weakness. After the attack has ended, the person is wracked by sweat, fever, pain and nausea – sometimes for days on end. Children not strong enough to withstand this battle (especially those without access to water or medical care) often perish at this point. Malnourished people are especially vulnerable to the ravages of malaria, as the disease slowly wears them down to nothing.
If untreated, the parasites continue to reproduce, until billions of them travelling through the victim’s circulatory system, attacking the oxygen-carrying red blood cells. This is when the body starts to break down: the lungs battle for breath and the heart becomes too weak to pump. I have seen these weakened people, frail to the touch and I grow angry knowing that malaria is an easily treatable and preventable disease, yet it kills more than a million people every year! Here in Africa, malaria is a rampant child-killer as 3,000 kids die every day from the disease. That’s one child every 30 seconds. In the four minutes it takes you to read this report, another eight kids have perished. These are staggering statistics, especially considering it has been going on for centuries.
Actually, malaria has been wrecking havoc on the world for millennia, as pre-human hominids and dinosaurs also suffered from the parasite and many animals still die from the parasite today. It is suspected that Alexander the Great died of malaria (which led to the collapse of the Greek Empire), while its presence may have also stopped the advance of the armies of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun as well. Though the world has eradicated once-pandemic diseases like smallpox and polio, over a million people a year die from malaria, which is twice the number of a generation ago. Meanwhile, as National Geographic notes, several regions of the world (such as here in sub-Saharan Africa), “have reached the brink of total malarial collapse, virtually ruled by swarms of buzzing, flying syringes.” In addition to the health costs of malaria, the infection of half a billion people inflicts a debilitating effect on these countries’ economic condition as well. There has been a lot of international attention devoted towards curbing the ravages of the disease, especially by the World Health Organization and Bill Gates, who called the disease “the worst thing on the planet.” One of the main obstacles to producing a vaccine is the fact that pharmaceutical companies do not want to devote their Research & Development resources to finding a cure because they know that the African people cannot afford an expensive vaccine. This is the sad but true economic reality. How many children need to die before the world will be mobilized to end it? Apparently more than 3,000 a day.
But instead of cursing a reality out of my control, I have sought out the most effective way to save a local community from this fatal disease. Many are surprised to learn that malaria is easily prevented; by using Insecticide-Treated Bednets, the death rate falls by roughly 60%. That is pretty astounding, considering that each bednet ranges in price between $2 and $5. Here is Senegal, malaria is the leading cause of death for kids under the age of 5, responsible for 30% of their deaths and over half of their hospital visits. When I learned that only 14% of these children are exposed to these bednets, I vowed devote my resources to try to save the lives of some of these kids. In my search for an effectively-run local organization to partner up with, I discovered Tostan, which was founded by Chicago native Molly Melching, who has been working to promote education, health and human rights here in Senegal since her days with the Peace Corps in the 1970’s; Tostan is a wonderful model for community-led development fostered and facilitated on a local bottom-up level. (For more info, see my last blog entry www.adrockcarter.blogspot.com or www.tostan.org)
When I expressed my desire to donate mosquito nets on behalf of 100 Friends, Molly’s face lit up with excitement.
“I’ve got the ideal village for you,” replied.
Beliga is a community of roughly a thousand people, located close to the city of Thi├Ęs, a few hours outside of the capitol of Dakar. With $800 in hand from 100 Friends, we visited the local health clinic, where we purchased 400 of these specially-treated mosquito nets and then drove out to the village where we were enthusiastically greeted by the villagers. Upon delivery, the village chief and the two female leaders of the local development council expressed their heart-felt thankyous, passing along their gratitude to all of our supporters (that means YOU!). They were overjoyed to receive these life-saving nets and installed them with gusto. Since the villagers usually sleep at least two to a bed, nearly all of the villagers of Baliga will now be protected from this lethal threat.
It’s amazing how simple saving lives can be: we recognize a need, we research the most effective manner to address that need, we purchase the item in need and then go directly to the community to administer the aid. Thanks to the generous donations of people like you, we are able to provide the $2 bednets that will undoubtedly spare many of the inhabitants of Baliga from the ravages of malaria. Who knew two bucks could be so well-spent?

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