Malaria, Refugees and Life Saving Nets–Ken Bacon Remembered

Ken Bacon passed away this week.  We honor his memory by reposting this item he originally wrote for us in May 2009.  Please visit his memorial page on the website of Refugees International

When Refugees International visited the Nyabiheke camp for Congolese refugees in Rwanda, we asked a doctor there to describe the camp’s biggest health problem and her most urgent need. Without hesitation, Dr. Ann Kao said the biggest problem in the camp was malaria, and her biggest need was bed nets to protect families from mosquito bites in their sleep.

We would have gotten the same answer in almost any refugee camp in Africa. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 90% of all malaria infections occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is the leading killer of children. Refugees are particularly vulnerable because they often live in hastily constructed camps which can have poor drainage and sanitary facilities and few medical resources.

Those of us on the trip, including several members of the Refugees International board of directors, quickly raised the amount of money Dr. Kao requested for bed nets and sent it to her organization, which purchased mosquito protection nets for the refugees.

This was an early version of the UN Foundation’s Nothing But Nets Campaign , a grassroots effort to save lives by preventing the spread of malaria. For just $10 the campaign purchases a bed net, delivers it to a family in Africa and explains its use. So far the campaign has purchased more than 2.6 million nets. The nets, which are treated with long-lasting insecticide, keep a family safe for four years.

Today is World Malaria Day-a good time to consider these two shocking facts:

o Malaria infects more than 500 million people a year and kills more than a million a year-one person every 30 seconds.

o Malaria is a disease we know how to prevent and treat.

We have, of course, eliminated malaria in large parts of the world-much of Asia, all of Europe, and the Americas. But malaria remains a major public health problem in sub-Saharan Africa, where many people live on less than $1 a day and can’t afford a bed net. The costs of malaria in Africa are huge:

o Malaria is the leading killer of children. If untreated, 90% of infected babies and toddlers die within 48 hours of developing malaria symptoms

o Malaria causes up to half of all hospital admissions and outpatient visits

o Malaria related losses from illness and death amount to about $12 billion a year

o The burden of illness reduces school attendance and food harvests

The first, most basic line of defense against malaria is bed nets. They work. They save lives.

Early next month, Refugees International will honor Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and the creator of the UN Foundation, at a dinner celebrating 30 years of live-saving advocacy. We selected Ted because CNN has brought humanitarian crises-wars, natural disasters, and disease-into our living rooms and caused us to open our hearts and pocket books in response. Ted himself responded generously by donating $1 billion to establish the UN Foundation to support UN causes and activities, such as fighting malaria.

In communities and refugee camps across Africa, I have seen first hand the devastating impact of malaria. I have also seen what a huge difference bed nets can make in keeping people alive. I travel with my own personal mosquito net. I wish everybody in Africa had his or her own net.

So on World Malaria Day 2009, Refugees International is sending a contribution to Nothing But Nets. Please join us. You can save a life-maybe a whole family.

Ken Bacon is President of Refugees International