Malaria kills millions each year and sickens millions more. But progress is being made in the fight against one of mankind's oldest and deadliest enemies. New anti-malarial drugs and vaccines are being developed, and there's a decidedly low-tech approach to malaria prevention that's providing immediate relief.
Imagine living in a place where you dread to see the sun go down, where you dread hearing the buzzing sound of mosquitoes.
"They're waiting for the mosquitoes to descend upon them and, you know, they see it as coming under attack," said David McGuire, the director of an anti-malarial program called Netmark. "People, particularly in rural areas, are desperate for some help here and telling us that they dread nightfall."
The mosquitoes that transmit malaria to humans are most active after dark. An unprotected person may get dozens of bites each night. Children under five and expectant mothers are especially vulnerable. Mothers because their resistance is down, children because they haven't yet developed resistance. But Mr. McGuire says there is an inexpensive, low-tech defense against these nightly attacks: insecticide treated bed netting.
"There have been a number of studies and they have demonstrated that insecticide treated nets are the best way to prevent malaria and decrease mortality rates, particularly in children under five," he explained. "The mortality for children sleeping under treated nets can drop, on average, roughly twenty percent. It can reduce the rates of severe malaria by over forty percent. It can also decrease the number of premature births among pregnant women sleeping under nets by forty percent. So it is a very simple yet effective technology."
But even so basic a technology is often beyond the reach of the poor, especially those living in developing nations. That's where The Netmark Program comes in. Director McGuire says his organization financed in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development walks a thin line between aid and enterprise.
"What we're trying to do is strike the balance between a long-term sustainable activity that will not require donor funds that we'll set up a system in Africa that will provide access to affordable high quality products over the long run regardless of funding," he said. "But at the same time trying to take the significant funds that are available right now for malaria and target them towards the ones who cannot benefit right now from commercial availability; pregnant women and children under five who are the most susceptible to severe malaria."
Netmark has taken a three-fold approach to this developmental high-wire act. First, the group's local representatives provide startup funding for new bed net manufacturing and marketing enterprises in Africa. Second, they help existing bed net providers expand into as yet untapped markets. Finally, they provide free or heavily subsidized netting to the poorest of the poor, often through local neonatal health clinics.
"We have a number of clinics in Zambia and Senegal that we're doing this through," pointed out Mr. McGuire. "They will get their counseling and will be told that they need to be sleeping under an insecticide treated net. The health worker will then give them a coupon, which they can redeem, in a shop that is very close to that clinic. And they can pick the net of their choice and get a significant discount on the net."
Government agencies and private charities have donated quite large sums to the war on malaria in recent years. The United States recently announced a $15 billion commitment to battle malaria and the other two most deadly epidemics: HIV-AIDS, and tuberculosis. David McGuire says that public pressure will encourage governments to continue the fight. For those interested in getting even more directly involved, he suggests contributions to any one of several agencies at work in malaria prevention in general, and bed net distribution in particular.
"UNICEF, Red Cross, World Vision are organizations that are supporting malaria prevention in Africa," added Mr. McGuire. "Save the Children, Plan International, all these organizations work at the community level and are focused on preventing malaria and making sure that those who get infected with malaria get treated. So donations to those organizations can be very helpful."
The Netmark Program will continue to help those suffering from malaria through at least 2007 when their USAID funding ends.