Monday, April 26, 2010

Guest Voices: World Malaria Day

Continuing our series of guest posts from Concern Worldwide, a look at anti-malaria efforts in reflection of the upcoming World Malaria Day. Writer Philip Wegner works as a health adviser to Concern USA.

In Western nations, most people don’t think twice about mosquito-bites except as a minor annoyance. However, as Health Advisor for Concern Worldwide’s Child Survival programs, I cannot help but wonder how the world would be altered if the mosquitoes that cause so much suffering in Africa or Asia did the same thing here? At one time, malaria was also present in the West—but its impact never compared to the illness and death it brings to people in developing countries.

Malaria prevention and control has been an important element of the US Agency of International Development (USAID) Child Survival programs since their inception in 1985. Malaria kills a child every 30 seconds: in fact, it is the number one killer of young children in Africa. Forty percent of the world’s population is at risk of getting malaria—90 percent of some 1 million deaths attributed to malaria every year occur in Africa.

Concern focuses about one-third of its Child Survival programming on malaria prevention and control. For example, in Burundi, Niger, and Rwanda, Concern is working with the Ministries of Health and local village communities to prevent and treat malaria. The most obvious ways to control the disease are interventions that protect people from being bitten by malaria-carrying mosquitoes in the first place. The Anopheles mosquito carries the malaria parasite inside its body, and can infect anyone it bites with the parasite. But the Anopheles only “feeds” from dusk until dawn.

Therefore, people are at highest risk at night or when they are sleeping. Insecticide-treated bed nets for children and adults have proven highly effective in reducing malaria rates, even in areas of high prevalence. A mosquito net, whose estimated average cost is around $10, can save a life. It’s a simple solution with dramatic results. Concern works with local partner and governments to provide ITNs (insecticide-treated bed nets) and, whenever possible, long-lasting insecticide treated nets, to the people that need them the most–pregnant women and children under 5 years of age. The United Nations target is to provide all malaria-prone African countries with malaria control interventions by the end of 2010.

New treatments have revolutionized malaria control in the 21st century. The discovery of an herbal medicine (artemisinin, derived from Chinese traditional medicine) has made the treatment of malaria easier and safer. However, this treatment has numerous and sometimes dangerous side-effects. Today, treatment with a combination of medicines—called ACT (artemisinin-combined-therapy)—is common throughout Africa other malaria-prone regions and has proven to be safe and effective.

Another important development in the fight against malaria is the work to bring treatment directly to the places where people are most vulnerable. Concern and other humanitarian and development agencies are helping to implement programs in partnership with governments at national level that involve training Community Health Workers to recognize and treat early signs of simple malaria in their own communities. In rural Burundi and Niger, Concern recently started a program called “Community Case Management,” which also includes the use of community health workers to screen and treat of diarrhea and pneumonia.

Much work on a concerted, global scale remains to be done if we are to significantly reduce the rate of death from malaria worldwide. But there is hope, with new drugs and better treatment combined with new ways of reaching communities and mothers with children most vulnerable to malaria we can make a real difference. Preventing the huge numbers of child deaths from malaria that occur each year is no longer an impossible dream. World Malaria Day is this Sunday April 25, 2010—let’s all do our part. Urge your congressperson to support lifesaving malaria prevention and treatment initiatives by including $1 billion for child and maternal health programs within the Global Health and Child Survival Account in the FY 2011 Appropriations bill.

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