More than a quarter of the deaths of children under five in Senegal can be attributed to malaria.  A U.S. government campaign to distribute mosquito nets and educate the population about treatment and prevention aims to cut that number in half.  Selah Hennessy has more from Dakar's crowded and impoverished suburbs, where the U.S. ambassador kicked off this year's campaign.

A festive mood prevailed Tuesday in the Dakar suburb of Pikine, as the community celebrated health initiatives in the neighborhood.

Vitamin A was distributed to children as part of a nutrition program organized by the Senegalese government, and the U.S. aid agency AID handed out bed nets treated with insecticide to women and children as part of a program to fight malaria.

According to USAID, more than one million cases of malaria are reported in Senegal each year.  More than 25 percent of children who die have succumbed to malaria.

Yonde Sene lives in Pikine.  On Tuesday, she was given a bed net for her five-month-old baby.

She says many people suffer from malaria in Pikine. She adds that malaria medication is usually expensive and that free aid programs help very much.

President Bush's five-year program called the President's Malaria Initiative is one such program.  It has allocated more than $1 million to 15 African countries.

U.S. ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau Janice Jacobs spoke to the crowd in Pikine to launch a three-day campaign to distribute bed nets.

"Senegal is one of the countries most affected by malaria, it is the leading cause of death in Senegal, so it was identified early on as one of the beneficiaries," she said.

She says the aim of the initiative is to cut malaria deaths in Senegal by half before 2010.

"We are working in all of the districts in Senegal, really spreading out," she added.  "We have a lot of people working on education in addition to the four parts of our program, so that is really our hope."

Aladji Thiombane helps coordinate health care for the Senegalese government in Pikine.  He agrees that malaria must be the focus of medical aid in Senegal.

"Before AIDS and cerebral problems, you have malaria in the first place, because it kills both the mothers and the children," he said.  "Every year you can find many children killed by malaria here in Senegal."

He says malaria aid projects are crucial to saving lives in Senegal.

"I hope that malaria will go out in Senegal, but we cannot have it without projects like this," he added.  "Everyday you can see mothers coming to the district bringing their children who are sick with malaria."

But he says aid programs need to visit Pikine more frequently if malaria is to be eradicated there.  He worries that malaria will still be a big problem in 2010, when the project is to end.

"It is a pity that we do not have a project like this every day or every month, but there is only four years that we can have this project," he said.  "If they can come every year, why not?  It would be a good thing for all of us."

According to the United Nations Children's Fund, only two percent of children under age five sleep under bed nets in Senegal.