Malaria Policy and Faith Communities

by Avi Smolen & Randa Kuziez, Faiths Act Fellows, Washington DC

According to the World Health Organization, half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria. It is nearly impossible to conceive of the numbers of actual people behind this figure-billions of people at risk. The good news is that the survival rate has been improving; what was close to one million deaths per year has been lowered in 2008 to an estimated 863,000 deaths. This number is still extraordinarily high for a disease that is preventable and treatable, but it shows that progress is being made. With the increasing prevalence of long-lasting insecticidal bed-nets and indoor residual spraying of insecticide, many families have been protected from contracting the disease from the mosquitoes that carry it. With the increasing availability of artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT), treatment has saved many lives from the total 243 million estimated cases in 2008. A comprehensive malaria control system is being put together by many international players, and it is crucial that faith communities play a role as well.

The international organizations promoting malaria eradication include the UN Envoy for Malaria, Ray Chambers, the World Health Organization’s Malaria Program, and UNICEF’s Malaria Action Program. The Global Fund is the main international source of funding for malaria programs, in addition to their work on AIDS and tuberculosis. Many countries have also pledged funding unilaterally like the United States and its President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), and the United Kingdom’s 2008 £50m pledge to fund malaria eradication. A considerable number of non-governmental organizations have also taken leadership roles in the fight against malaria, including Malaria No More, the United Nations Foundation’s Nothing But Nets campaign, and the collaborative efforts of United Against Malaria and Roll Back Malaria.

Many of these organizations have begun to incorporate faith communities into their efforts, and more must be done to tap the potential for activism from people of faith in developed countries and to utilize the faith networks that exist in developing countries. Many faith traditions share the principle of service, helping one’s fellow or repairing the world. These shared values can be the framework for mutually inspiring relationships in which people of different faiths join together to help those suffering from malaria, while also learning more about each other. Just as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights, so too can religious communities unite to fight a disease that afflicts people of all faiths and kills so many each year. In fact, this belief is the basis of the Faiths Act Campaign, an initiative of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation that encourages people of faith from all over the world to join together to fight malaria. There are Faiths Act Fellows, young leaders across the US, UK, and Canada, leading the campaign and creating sustainable hubs of multi-faith youth activism focused on malaria.

Faith is important not only in creating a groundswell of activism in developed countries, but also in connecting people in need to the resources that can help save their lives. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, lack an extensive infrastructure of roads and highways and many citizens in rural areas are not accessible to the government and may not receive bed-nets and other preventative measures to guard against malaria. “Many rural areas lack health clinics, but they almost always have a mosque or a church,” said US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. The good news is that these houses of worship often have networks that reach further than those of the government. They can help with distribution of life-saving bed-nets and can also educate community members about how to use them. Religious leaders in these communities can also instruct their congregations about how to prevent a disease like malaria and advise them to seek treatment. Religious groups have already begun this work and continue to play a key role in malaria control programs.

Many non-profit organizations, often faith-based, in malaria-endemic countries also contribute to the success of reducing malaria deaths. In fact, nearly a third of the 150 non-profit organizations the United States has supported in the fight against malaria were faith-based groups. Ed Scott, founder and chairman of the Center for Inter-Faith Action on Global Poverty (CIFA) believes that faith-based organizations are more effective in bringing about the social change that is necessary if the fight against malaria is to succeed. Project Muso, an interfaith non-profit based in Mali, is an example of a successful model that addresses health and poverty issues through women’s empowerment, economic investment, and community health programs. Faith-based groups are effective in assisting distribution, but their truly powerful role is getting people to actually sleep under the bed-nets and to welcome people into their homes to do insecticide spraying. In many developing countries, for those hit hardest by malaria, healthcare is often delivered directly by religious institutions, in Africa, faith-based organizations provide about 40 percent of healthcare, WHO Assistant Director General for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, Hiroki Nakatani, said.

In order to slow the spread of malaria, and for the Millennium Development Goal of eliminating deaths from malaria by 2015 to be achieved, malaria control efforts must be a partnership between governments, non-governmental organizations, and faith-based groups. The urgency of the cause is never more important as new estimates indicate that climate change will increase malaria risk in the future. The World Health Organization’s World Malaria Report describes evidence that prevention and treatment can alleviate the burden of disease, so the work that must be done is simply getting the resources to those who need them.

Today, every 30 seconds an African child dies of malaria. This number is devastating, but it can be changed, and it is being lowered through worldwide efforts to combat malaria. The goal of eradication is achievable. Between 2003 and 2006 Zanzibar increased bed-net distribution, indoor insecticide spraying, and provided its population with access to free anti-malarial medication. This produced a 77% drop in malaria-related hospital admissions, and with new technology that allows community health workers to track new cases, malaria incidence in Zanzibar is below 5%. The tools exist, and with the cooperation of faith groups, governments, and non-governmental organizations, malaria can be eradicated and its Millennium Development Goal achieved.

Avi Smolen and Randa Kuziez are Faiths Act Fellows in Washington DC working at Malaria No More’s Policy Center. They are focused on bringing college students together to coordinate interfaith malaria activism across universities in Washington DC.

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