The global malaria fight is succeeding. Deaths have decreased by a third, from a million per year, over the past decade. Across Africa, Peace Corps volunteers, in alliance with PMI advisors and in-country USAID health teams, national malaria control programs, and nonprofit partners, are working to defeat the illness that experts say has killed more people than any other in human history.
In rural Burkina Faso, Peace Corps volunteer Bridget Roby noticed that though members of her community had life-saving mosquito nets, not everyone was using them. The Global Fund and PMI deliver millions of nets every year, and the vast majority of those are used and cherished. But every net that goes unused is a child unprotected, a chance to do better.
When Bridget looked at her community and thought, "We can do better," the solution that jumped out at her was… to take pictures. She asked every mother who was already using her net to pose next to it for a picture, then she posted those on the wall of the health clinic as a public honor and reminder. Soon those who had not been using their nets were approaching Bridget to ask, "Can I have my picture taken? I use my net now." Bridget had helped change the social norm.
In Ben Gascoigne's village in Senegal, people had nets and were using them, but many were full of holes. A needle and thread costs a few pennies, a small knot over a hole is free. Ben wondered how to underscore the importance of repairing the nets?
Ben wanted to show villagers how much money was being spent to treat malaria. So he gathered as many empty rice sacks as the villagers could have bought with the money they were spending on malaria medications in a year. It was 196 sacks — over $6,000 worth of rice. He filled the sacks with straw and lined the road leading to the health clinic. When his neighbors asked, he said: "This is how much more rice the village would have if you prevented malaria instead of treating it. Would you like to learn how to repair your net?"
Peace Corps volunteers, in villages and towns across Africa, are complementing the work of global partners. Getting mosquito nets and malaria diagnostics and medicines to those in need is a core focus of PMI. But the last steps in those communities, such as making sure nets are used and repaired and medicines are taken, is the type of grassroots work where Peace Corps volunteers excel.
For more than 50 years, volunteers have been finding elegant solutions to these last mile problems. But too often those solutions lived proudly in one village alone.
The Internet can change that, giving innovative solutions virtual visas to travel across the globe. Over the past two years, volunteers in the Stomping Out Malaria in Africa initiative have leveraged free online tools and cloud computing — Skype, Google Drive, Facebook and Wordpress — to collaborate across a connected Africa. Bridget's wall of photos is now being replicated in Mozambique and Ghana and Ben's rice sack illustration could help convey the cost of malaria in other villages around the continent.
This new Peace Corps, leveraging a fresh generation of volunteers and their technologies combined with the tried and true community-level approach, and the President’s Malaria Initiative, with its expertise and resources, are a model of how government can work together efficiently. With our partners, we aim to put an end to this horrible disease.
Hessler-Radelet is the deputy director of Peace Corps and Ziemer is the U.S. global malaria coordinator.