Why malaria? Why interfaith?

Changing an old conversation – Within the international development discourse, religion is sometimes seen as a retardant to growth and progress. A clear illustration might be the Catholic Church’s (my church) refusal to normalize safe-sex education in sub-Saharan Africa. Secular-minded individuals and development professionals point to other examples of houses of worship in the developing world placing pastoral care above healthcare. But this isn’t always the case.

A Faiths Act volunteer was conducting a site assessment of a church in rural Mozambique and asked the pastor about their quite robust health clinic next to the church. “When did you start providing healthcare to your congregants?” he was asked. Translating into the local language, the pastor was confused. He asked for clarification. After a few more attempts, it was realized that he and his faith community drew no distinction between the health of the worshippers’ souls and the health of their bodies. He was being asked to pick a start date to what was, as he stated it, “The way we’ve always done things here.”

The reality – In the context of sub-Saharan Africa, churches and mosques are often the most robust and visible organizations in rural communities. Their proximate knowledge of local situations is invaluable, and their high standing provides a natural health education and healthcare distribution platform. The health systems in some African states are spread woefully thin, and often lack the reach necessary to help the poorest communities far from the cities. Faith communities can provide a parallel or at least complementary role in providing healthcare. In some cases, churches and mosques provide 60% of the given healthcare in an area. We are no strangers to the long list of western NGOs that operate on a faith basis. These groups mirror and often support the work of faith communities on the ground in the developing world.

United Nations Millennium Development Goals – The MDGs are a set of eight unaminously-agreed-upon goals that the UN activated as targets in the year 2000. The primary goal is to alleviate and eradicate extreme poverty, and to lift hundreds of millions of people up to a higher quality of life by the year 2015, with a mid-point review at the end of 2010. Empowering women, educating children, protecting the environment, and feeding the hungry are all part of the MDG package. One of the goals is the reduction of new infections of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, diseases that disproportionately affect the poor.

Malaria – Malaria has been with humankind since…we were humans, most likely. It’s taken countless lives, and has been the target of eradication by central governments since the time of Julius Caesar. Malaria is carried by a small mosquito that feeds at night, regurgitating parasites into the blood streams of humans. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was created specifically to address problems of malaria in the American south, where the disease was endemic until the 1950s. The Tanzanian island of Zanzibar has almost completely eradicated malaria as well. These examples of eradication success can be replicated.

Attempts have been made to beat back the disease before. There was a huge push between the 1950s and 1970s in the developing world. Great strides were made, but an eventual lack of political will and prevailing post-Independence conditions (specifically in sub-Saharan Africa) reversed those gains. Infection rates climbed again. The world is now, for the first time, in a position technologically and politically to make a new great push against malaria, and to make it a disease that millions of people used to die from.

Current affairs – Bill Gates, Ashton Kutcher, Tony Blair. Three names with three distinct personalities and histories. All of these folks, and countless others, have gotten involved in what is a new groundswell of support for malaria eradication. As we approach the end of 2010, we will compare progress on the MDGs with the targets that the UN set in 2000. Unfortunately, we are going to fall woefully short on a number of the MDGs, not least of all the one dealing with infectious disease. HIV/AIDS rates have fallen dramatically, but are still dangerously high. Tuberculosis is a huge problem. Malaria kills around one million people every year and sickens half a billion. So we must ask – out of all the MDGs, and out of the major infectious diseases, “Why malaria?”

The low-hanging fruit – Malaria is preventable and treatable. Those facts make it an easy target. Interventions are simple, too. Insecticide-treated bed nets are cheap, last 5 years, and kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes dead. Human-friendly indoor pesticides stick to walls and kill mosquitoes that rest during the day. Outdoor spraying and the draining of standing water (where mosquitoes breed) cut down on the bugs as well. Medicines to treat the disease are cheap – many African governments subsidize the costs – but distribution can be a problem in far-flung parts of the countryside. Furthermore, correct diagnosis is difficult without proper equipment or training. That being said, researchers come closer and closer to a malaria vaccine every day. Bill Gates has recently pledged $10 billion USD towards such a vaccine. Someday, robust national vaccination programs will protect the children that constitute a bulk of preventable deaths from malaria.

The disease is tied very closely to the other MDGs because it is so prevalent. Sick children can’t attend class and sick adults can’t work. Sub-Saharan Africa hemorrhages an estimated $12 billion USD each year in GDP through this loss of productivity, further compounding problems of poverty. Many parents have to choose between treating the infected in their family or eating. People suffering from malaria clog (for lack of a better word) hospital beds that could be used to treat people with more serious illnesses like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Educating women about the disease and how to protect their families increases their standing in the community and allows them to make important decisions in families. Malaria touches almost all of the other MDGs. Were it to be eliminated, the other goals would be that much more easier to achieve.

Why interfaith – We’ve already seen the large role that faith communities in the developing world play in providing healthcare when other systems falter. Furthermore, we see that faith-based organizations in the West operate with massive budgets and great influence both at home and abroad. All belief systems have a Compassion Imperative somewhere in the holy texts and habitual practice. Activating religious people to join a global movement to eradicate deaths from malaria is one thing – our program is a bit more ambitious.

Mosquitoes carrying malaria don’t care who they feed upon. For them, the blood of a Christian is just as sweet as that of a Muslim or an atheist or a Sikh. Mosquitoes are equal opportunity offenders. If faith communities and faith-based organizations here at home were to collaborate on finding solutions for their co-religionists in the developing world, the effect would be that much greater. More importantly, building bridges between faith communities in the developing world allows them to better serve their congregants. Two heads are better than one, goes the old adage. Faiths Act is about ordinary people of faith coming together to do something extraordinary. Faith communities can demonstrate their power as a force for good in the world today. We can eradicate deaths from malaria.

Let faiths act together.

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