Nigeria's most prominent religious leaders are spearheading an unprecedented effort to tackle malaria.  With one quarter of the world's malaria deaths occurring in the African country, religious leaders and health officials are working to deliver 63 million long-lasting mosquito nets to 30 million households by the end of 2010.  

Under the $1-billion project, 300,000 religious leaders are to be trained in 2010 to carry the malaria prevention message to cities and villages across Nigeria through sermons and the use of nets in their communities.

The Sultan of Sokoto and spiritual leader of Muslims in Nigeria, Sa'ad Abubakar, and John Onaiyekan, Catholic archbishop of Abuja and current head of the Christian Association of Nigeria joined government officials and representatives of international groups at the launch of the interfaith action against malaria in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation.

Religious leaders are considered very influential in Nigeria and the health authorities were delighted that the latest effort to tackle malaria has earned the strong support of the country's two most prominent religious leaders.

"We have technical skills as ministers and as physicians, we have all the inputs that we need but penetrating and mobilizing and getting people to believe what you want them to do is a different ball game entirely, and that is why the leadership of His Eminence [the Sultan] and the archbishop and indeed the religious platform is probably the most significant impact that we can make to making this difference," said Babatunde Osotimehin, the Nigerian minister of health.

About 75 million Nigerians, or half the population, are attacked by malaria at least once a year, with children below five most vulnerable.

Attending the Abuja launch was the U.N. Secretary-General's Special Envoy for Malaria, Ray Chambers, who described as profound the impact of malaria on Nigeria's economy.  He said the illness cost the country $10 billion a year due to deaths and lost work days.

"We must succeed with Nigeria in this fight against this horrific disease, malaria," said Chambers.  "It kills over 300,000 children and women in Nigeria each year. It accounts for 75 million cases in Nigeria and when you think about the cost to the economy because people can not go to work, because 60 percent of outpatient admissions are attributable to malaria, we believe it costs Nigeria over $10 billion a year to the GDP."

Malaria is a disease caused by parasites and transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito.  The infection can lead to coma and death if left untreated.

Around 97 percent of Nigerians are at risk of infection.  Fighting the killer disease has been hampered by poverty, ignorance and a dilapidated health infrastructure.

Nigeria hopes to reduce malaria deaths by 50 percent by the end of 2010 through the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, indoor spraying with insecticides, and effective medication.