This week world leaders kick-started a new , pledging to the cause. This is good news. Malaria has been an overlooked issue for so long.
Here is a map of the world re-calibrated to show relative wealth*:
And here is a map of the world with each country re-sized to show deaths from malaria:
As you can see, Africa is almost invisible on the first map, a shrivelled husk of a continent. On the second, the roles are reversed and Africa is bloated beyond all proportions. The link is clear: malaria and poverty go hand in hand. No real development will occur in Africa without dealing with malaria.
Malaria and poverty compound and reinforce each other. Because people are poor, they cannot afford mosquito nets, screen doors and anti-malarial drugs. When malaria is subsequently contracted, adults miss work, children miss school, both are severely weakened, and deaths in the family force children out to work. Because premature death is so common, parents compensate by having large families, playing into the population problem. “Malaria sets the perfect trap” writes Jeffrey Sachs in ‘The end of poverty’, “it impoverishes a country, making it too expensive to prevent and treat the disease. Thus malaria continues and poverty deepens in a truly vicious circle.”
It is estimated that malaria costs Africa every year in lost productivity, but of course the human cost cannot be calculated. As a child in Madagascar I remember making regular visits to a particular little village where we knew a rural pastor and his family. He had buried two wives and several children.
The saddest thing is that malaria is relatively easy and inexpensive to control. Mosquito nets over beds and spraying houses with insect repellant can drop cases by 95% at a stroke. If caught in the early stages, it is 100% treatable. A breakthrough vaccine is rumoured to be close. History already shows that it can be eradicated from whole areas – the US had malaria until the 1940s. Africa poses different challenges, as the climate and the strain of malaria found there make it more resistant, but it’s not impossible. Through global cooperation polio and smallpox have both been all but extinguished as a threat. In time we will be able to add malaria to that list. This is a curse that can be lifted.
Sachs estimates that stopping malaria would cost $3 billion. That $3 billion has been promised, and we will watch and expect that to be delivered. Malaria’s time is up.