Taking the Fight Against Malaria to the Front Lines

Six weeks before his election on November 4, President-elect Barack Obama made a promise to the one million people around the world who die from Malaria each year. “When I am President,” he said, “We will set the goal of ending all deaths from Malaria by 2015. The United States will lead.”

This may sound like a typical grandiose promise made by a candidate seeking election. But to those in the public health community it offered validation that ending Malaria deaths is not some pie in the sky dream–but a goal that can be achieved in the here and now. Following through on this commitment, however, means that the fight against Malaria must be taken to where the disease is most destructive and most difficult to contain: refugee camps in Africa.

This will not be easy, but it is necessary if we are to make real progress toward fulfilling Obama’s goal.

Malaria is the leading cause of death for refugees. Refugee camps are often located on lands uninhabited by the local populations precisely because these locations are fertile grounds for Malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Of the 33 million “persons of concern” to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees an estimated 63% live in Malaria-endemic areas. This combines with poor health care delivery and malnourishment to make refugees even more susceptible to dying from Malaria.

A mosquito bite, though, does not have to be a death sentence. There are a number of effective treatments and prevention methods available today that can reduce global malaria deaths to virtually zero. All it will take is a modest investment of cash and a major investment in political will.

One of the highest-impact – an easiest – ways to reduce Malaria deaths is through the use of insecticide treated bed nets. In places where bed nets are made available, Malaria deaths have plummeted by as much as 90%. These nets are not only effective, but they are cheap and portable. One net is large enough to cover a family of four and durable enough to last about four years.

Still, there are challenges to effectively deploying bed nets to refugee camps. For one, camps are particularly hard to reach. Also, the distribution of nets must be accompanied by education campaigns that stress the importance of these nets to refugee populations. And when camps are hit with food shortages (as is all too often) refugees have been forced to barter bed nets for food rations.

No one should have to make the choice between feeding their families or exposing them to Malaria. This is why a number of philanthropies including United Nations Foundation, NBA Cares, the People of the United Methodist Church and the Union of Reform Judaism are teaming up with the UN High Commission for Refugees to deliver bed nets to all the refugees of the world. The first goal is to send bed nets to 630,000 refugees living in 27 temporary camps in East Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda–the regional heart of the deadly malaria-refugee nexus.

We are not going to win the fight against Malaria unless we take that fight to refugee camps. But philanthropies, governments, and even the United Nations cannot do this alone. It needs popular support. As president Obama himself conceded, eliminating Malaria “must be a cause for countless individuals, and a common goal that unites us all.”

That requires your help. One easy way to get involved is by visiting Nothing But Nets, an initiative of the United Nations Foundation that to date has raised more than $20 million, and has successfully distributed nets across Africa. Each $10 donation to Nothing But Nets pays for the manufacture and delivery of a bed net to a refugee camp in Africa.

So, send a net. Save a life. And count yourself as having helped take the fight against Malaria to the front lines.