As part of a worldwide campaign against malaria, health workers in Africa are falling back on a proven weapon against the deadly disease: bed nets. While scientists research new prevention and treatment strategies, experts say the low-tech method is still essential. Joe Bavier recently visited a bed net distribution program in Niger and has this report for VOA.
Several hundred women stand in line at a free mosquito-net distribution center in Niger's capital Niamey. As the women leave with their new blue nets wrapped in plastic, a health worker explains how to use them.
Since 2000, when African heads of state got together in the Nigerian capital Abuja and promised to cut malaria deaths in half in 10 years, increased attention has focused on the disease which kills about one million Africans annually.
Scientists are currently producing new drug treatments, as resistance levels in much of Africa increase. And several candidate vaccines are currently in the works, with the aim of some day eradicating the disease.
But many experts say the best defense against infection is also one of the oldest: a correctly used, chemically treated, bed net.
The distribution program, funded by the Global Fund, which sponsors plans to combat tuberculosis, AIDS, and malaria worldwide, finished up in Niger last month. And in the end, at nearly four-thousand distribution points across the country, more than two-million bed nets were handed out.
Ibrahim Ousmane, the head of Niger's Fight Against Malaria program, says he hopes the project will have a big impact in fighting the disease, which is one of the primary obstacles to African development.
"We have, every year, deaths in Niger by malaria," he says. "And with malaria, people cannot work. We have, again, pregnant women who have very big problems with malaria. We think it is the first disease in our country (which) gives us big problems."
Along with pregnant women, small children are among the most vulnerable to the disease. African children account for around 75 percent of malaria deaths worldwide, with one child falling victim every 30 seconds.
Nearly a quarter of Niger's 12 million citizens are under the age of five. The distribution in Niger aimed to give a net to every pregnant women and mother in the country.
Women like 36-year-old Leyhana Seybou, who lives in a village several hours from Niamey and received a net in November.
Leyhana says she is thankful for the net she received. With her six children, she says, as soon as one got well, another would begin to show symptoms. With severe cases, she is forced to travel to the hospital in the capital. And she says she has little money to spend on medication.
Project coordinator for the International Federation of the Red Cross, John Haskew says nets, which are cheap and proven effective, form an essential first line of defense against malaria. He says, through prevention, they can save families the heavy financial burden of treating the illness.
"Niger is really pioneering the approach within African countries to really scale up interventions for malaria control, and this is one of the key Global Fund projects," Haskew says. "Bed nets (are) just one component of an overall strategy of malaria control and prevention. And to distribute bed nets is absolutely key."
Haskew says, the Niger distribution, which was coupled with a measles vaccination drive, is just the beginning. This year the program will operate in several other countries, and eventually advanced anti-malarial drug treatments will also be made available.
"There is a measles/malaria partnership with the Federation of the Red Cross as a key partner," Haskew says. "And we have several countries lined up in 2006 to integrate bed net distributions with measles vaccination. Angola is one. Sierra Leone. And also Mozambique has already taken place this year."
A survey by the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control found that, in Niger, of the 80 percent of households with a mosquito bed net before the free distribution, only one-fifth were using them.
Haskew says the next important step in the program will be an intensive program aimed at insuring the new nets will be used properly.