Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Malaria's a Buzzkill

We Sub-Saharan-African PCV's are all gearing up for World Malaria Day this month (April 25th) by making an extra effort to educate our communities here and back home about the illness and what can be done to prevent it. You may already know a bit about Malaria, but I'll bet if you keep reading (and you don't work for WHO) you'll still learn a thing or two!

So, what is Malaria?

Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium. 

Plasmodium, as a baby, enters the bloodstream and travels to the liver, where it matures and makes more Plasmodiums. After a few days, the mature parasites leave the liver and get to work infecting blood cells.

Plasmodium is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected mosquitoes.
The breed of mosquito that carries the Malaria parasites (yeah, there are different breeds) exists primarily in Africa. It doesn't exist in North America anymore because of insecticide-spraying measures taken by the US in the late 1940's. I can only imagine what the all-natural-all-organic-completely-against-chemicals-even-though-they-also-exist-in-nature folks would have done to keep the disease alive had they been around back then (looking at you, California).

Anyway, when the female mosquitoes get pregnant, they crave blood because they need it to carry out egg production. You know how pregnant ladies are when they get cravings....

So when one of these hangry mommas bites you, you're left with not only an annoyingly itchy bite, but also a lovely batch of parasites waiting to take over your body.

What happens when you have Malaria?

Usually Malaria symptoms are similar to those of the flu: fever, chills, nausea, and all around feeling like you've been hit by a train. In rare cases, or when left untreated,  Malaria can cause seizures, brain damage, spleen rupture, severe anemia, kidney failure, respiratory distress, and death. Pregnant women are especially at risk for Malaria complications and contracting it can result in premature delivery or birth of an underweight baby, as well as stillbirth and miscarriage.

Why should I care about Malaria?

Here are some not-so-fun facts about the illness:
  • Every year, half of the world's entire population is at risk for contracting Malaria (about 3.2 billion people)
  • Each year about 200 million people contract the disease and almost 600 million people die from it.
  • Every 60 seconds, a child dies of Malaria.
  • 90% of all Malaria deaths occur in Africa, most of them children under 5.
  • In Mozambique alone, about 30% of all deaths are Malaria related, and about 14,000 children die of the disease each year.
  • Parasite resistance to anti-malarial drugs has already emerged and is a serious concern, mostly caused by stopping treatment as soon as the person feels better.
  • Malaria targets the poor: Since insecticide treatments, bed nets and even treatment are very expensive, most of the people affected by Malaria cannot afford to treat it or protect themselves from it. Not to mention that when working adults get sick they lose valuable income and ultimately hurt the fragile economy of the affected countries.

Is there any good news?

I spent a lot of time looking at statistics, trying to find a positive correlation between reported Malaria cases and things like education rates, HDI, per capita GDP, international aid, and infrastructure. No matter what I put it up against, though, Malaria just kept steadily rising regardless of other fluctuations. It's an outlier. But how does that make sense? Surely with education and funding Malaria rates should go down. 

Part of the reason behind this is that better infrastructure and more development in the health sector goes hand in hand with better reporting of diseases. Another reason could be due to over-reporting. Unfortunately, this happens in malarious countries because the rate of malaria is so high and the clinics are too underequipped/underfunded to keep up with blood tests for all of the malaria-suspect patients that come through the door each day.  Instead, they just send patients with flu-like symptoms home with a scrip for anti-malarial drugs and those that have access to them and can afford them then contribute to the parasite drug-resistance problem by taking them unnecessarily.

There is good news, though. What we know for sure is that Malaria mortality rates have fallen by over half in sub-Saharan Africa, and 47% worldwide in the last decade. That's serious progress! Early diagnosis and treatment is essential to preventing Malaria deaths and also for reducing transmission rates, but the serious work is being done on the prevention side with bed nets, insecticide treatments and education

The best news, though? You can help.

Great, I'll go change my facebook profile pic right now!

Hold on a sec. While I admire your initiative in raising awareness, how about considering something that will directly impact the problem? Yep, that requires money/time/sacrifice, but you can feel good about the fact that you are directly contributing to the eradication of Malaria! There are lots of ways to help out. You could:
  • Buy a mosquito bed net for just $10 to protect someone from Malaria. Forego Starbucks three times this month and you can give someone here in Africa a safe place to sleep tonight. Donate to the UN campaign Nothing But Nets here.
  • Host a basketball game fundraiser for Nothing But Nets. If you're a teacher, rec league coach, or you've got kids in school, you can make this season count by hosting a game and providing mosquito nets to people in Africa. Make it extra interesting with a teachers vs. students game! Sign up to host a game here.
  • Give what you can to Malaria No More, and each dollar you spend will provide one child or pregnant mother with testing and treatment for Malaria. Donate to Malaria No More here.
  • Download the Best Fiends game on your phone or tablet and let Edward the mosquito teach you about Malaria through a series of puzzles! Get the app for iPhone/iPad on the app store here, or for all other devices on Google Play here.
  • Donate to Peace Corp's Stomp Out Malaria campaign, and fund projects that PCVs like me are doing in their communities to educate, prevent and eradicate Malaria! Give to Stomp Out Malaria here.
  • Write a letter to your member of Congress to let them know you care about funding for Malaria. Right now it's going to take an estimated 3.6 billion dollars to eradicate Malaria worldwide, but every dollar of aid counts in helping individuals. In the coming months Congress will decide how much aid the US will contribute. You can write your own letter/email, or you can use the online template here.

Done! Now what?

Help get the word out! Now's the time to change that profile pic, post a link, start a fundraiser of your own, bring up the cause at your next meeting, or just bring it up in conversation with your friends and colleagues. 

Malaria sucks, just like every other deadly disease. As with all preventable diseases, we have a responsibility to do whatever we can to eradicate it for the sake of humanity. But with this particular disease, we (the First World) have put off committing to a worldwide eradication campaign, and now it's out of control. It will be harder and more expensive now because we waited, but we deserve that. We deserve it not only because it's our fault, but because the reason we've waited so long is that the people it affects are the Third World. It's easy to forget about them and hard to pay attention. It's really easy to say it's not our place or our mess or our fault, but that's not true. However you look at it, they are human as much as we are and if you take away this sense of "we" and "them" that we have you'll see that they deserve what everyone deserves: respect, health, and a right to pursue happiness. 

"Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need." 2 Corinthians 8:13-14

You don't have to be a Christian to believe in this. Call it Karma or being a good person or keeping the universe in balance or whatever you want...it's the same concept: equality. If it were America battling an illness that we couldn't afford to combat (as it very well may be someday) I'd want the countries and corporations and individuals that could afford to pay for it to give whatever it costs to save us.

So let's not put it off any longer; let's do it, not because of foreign or political interests and not because of what we might get in return, but because it's the right thing to do.

*Malaria facts and statistics obtained from WHO, CDC, the UN, Gapminder, and Malaria No More.