Stopping malaria's death march

Tonight, 3,000 families in sub-Saharan Africa will mourn the deaths of their children. A similar number mourned yesterday; the same number will mourn tomorrow and the next day as drug-resistant strains of malaria claim more lives.

Malaria's deadly march has been unrelenting, killing on average 1 million people each year, mostly women and small children, and infecting 500 million in the poor regions of the world. If the mosquito-borne disease is not checked, it could replace AIDS as the No. 1 killer in the developing world.


To counter the disease, Lutheran World Relief, based in Baltimore, is marshaling its faithful in a $75 million fundraising campaign, the organization's largest effort ever. It plans to use about $2.6 million that CNN founder Ted Turner donated in April to carry out the first phase of a global effort to eradicate malaria.

"Malaria kills a million people every year," John Nunes, president of Lutheran World Relief, said in an interview. " ... That should lead to a moral outrage and so we want our constituents to be engaged in this program to end malaria."


Turner's United Nations Foundation launched the anti-malaria project with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the United Methodist Church. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports research on malaria vaccines, also donated $10 million to fight malaria.

"We need to mobilize, educate and inspire our U.S.-based constituents to enter into a program where we will contain and eliminate the threat of malaria throughout the world," Nunes said.

The campaign will be the latest in a series of initiatives to eradicate malaria, including the Roll Back Malaria campaign of the World Health Organization (WHO); the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; the Nothing But Nets campaign; and the President's Malaria Initiative, announced by President Bush in 2005.

Lutheran World Relief - which draws support from ELCA and LCMS - has an anti-malaria project in Tanzania, working with the U.S. Agency for International Development to deliver bed nets treated with insecticide and educating children in Sunday schools about the disease.

The United Methodist Church has taken a leadership role in Nothing But Nets, which aims to buy treated nets to distribute in parts of Africa where WHO says fewer than 5 percent of the children sleep under nets. It plans to raise $100 million from the project with the United Nations Foundation. Other projects include using solar-powered and hand-cranked community radios to relay information about the disease.

The Rev. Gray Henderson, executive director of the United Methodists' Global Health Initiative, said the church wants to strengthen its presence in Africa.

"We have a 150-year history in the continent through thousands of clinics and hospitals, " he said. "... The malaria initiative gives us the opportunity to work with other teams on a larger scale."

The United Methodist General Conference has given the go-ahead for the fundraising campaign.


The fundraising campaign for Lutheran World Relief will begin after the two Lutheran church bodies hold their national conventions: August next year in Minneapolis for ELCA and July 2010 in Houston for LCMS.

Part of the Lutheran campaign will include an HIV/AIDS initiative. People with HIV/AIDS are more susceptible to malaria, and malaria makes a bad situation worse. "When you have malaria, your immune system is compromised on both counts," Nunes said. "Those two diseases are co-related. They serve as a cocktail of death."

Working with local churches and organizations, Lutheran World Relief plans to educate the people on the proper use of mosquito nets. Apart from that, draining away stagnant water where mosquitoes breed and cutting bushes and tall grass around homesteads reduce the threat of the disease.

A decade ago, WHO, in conjunction with the United Nations Children's Fund, the U.N. Development Program and the World Bank, launched Roll Back Malaria. Among other things, the project seeks to eliminate the threat of malaria by 2015 through advocacy campaigns and to mobilize resources for malaria control and for research into a vaccine.

Chloroquine, for over 50 years, was the most effective drug for malaria because of its low cost.

But the malaria that is devastating parts of Africa is largely immune to frontline treatments. It arose in Asia, then was spread to Africa by airline passengers. The resurgence of the disease has also been attributed to rising temperatures due to global warming.


WHO recommends artemisinin combination therapies. A little expensive at $2.50 per dose, it can delay drug resistance especially in Africa and Southeast Asia.

Artemisinin is derived from a tree found in China. Used as a monotherapy, it has proved effective, but resistance has been emerging in parts of Asia, according to WHO.

Many victims of malaria are pregnant women and their unborn babies, as well as children under age 5. The epidemic is stretching to the breaking point the meager resources of the health care system where up to four people share beds in some public hospitals.

Malaria was wiped out in the United States almost six decades ago, after an outbreak led to the formation of the Office of Malaria Control (now part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). There are 1,200 malaria cases recorded each year in the U.S., none of them fatal.

A malarial attack is a frightful and debilitating experience. A female anopheles mosquito, the pathogen, bites usually in early evening, releasing plasmodia parasites that cause malaria. The disease is characterized by a throbbing headache, chills, fever and an enlarged spleen. Full recovery usually takes up to four weeks, and the patient is unable to work or do much of anything.

"The poor can least afford to be sick," Nunes said.


"If they are sick, they cannot work and you can't get money and if you have no money, you can't buy food."

Andrew Kipkemboi, features editor of The Standard in Nairobi, Kenya, is an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow at The Sun.