Malaria is on its way out – but the fight isn’t finished

When Sochele Banou’s three-year-old son, Aly, got sick, she didn’t know what to do. In her remote village in Mali, there was little access to medical services and she couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t getting better.

“My child cried so loudly,” she said, “We got to the hospital to see the doctor, but it was too late. There was nothing the doctor could do to help him.”

{mosads}Unfortunately, Sochele’s story is not unique. Throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa, too many parents have suffered the devastation of losing a child to a preventable disease. But the picture is changing. As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the President’s Malaria Initiative, and World Malaria Day today, we’re seeing more access to treatment and smart malaria prevention and education measures making a difference in malaria-affected countries around the world.

What’s unique about the President’s Malaria Initiative is that it began with the notion that while malaria was beatable, it would be an uphill battle. To defeat it, government groups, multilateral agencies, the private sector and NGOs would have to work together.

The Initiative has seen dramatic results. Every one of the President’s Malaria Initiative focus countries experienced a drop in mortality rates for children under five. In some countries, mortality rates have dropped by as much as 55 percent. Malaria is losing ground. Twenty-six countries are close to eliminating malaria. Fifty-five countries have reduced incidence of malaria by 75 percent. The broad coalition working on this effort has taken every opportunity to attack malaria. They’ve coordinated with local leaders, government officials in priority nations, and scientists to determine the best course of action to defeat malaria.

The organization for which I work, Lutheran World Relief, has seen great success in our ability to connect with communities of faith. We’ve seen time and time again that when an aid worker tells a mother that her child should sleep under a bed net, that mother might listen. When that same information comes from her pastor or another trusted community leader, the chances of action go up exponentially.

Still with all of this success, the fight isn’t over. We need to continue to address malaria not just as a health issue – but also as an economic one. In endemic countries, malaria accounts for 40 percent of all public health spending and economic growth in those countries is five times lower than in non-endemic countries. By fighting malaria, we are fighting global poverty. It’s a brutal parasite that weighs heavily on communities and finally, we have all the technology we need to end it. We just need the willpower.

That is why I am very grateful for the leadership of Reps. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) and Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), who co-chair the House and Senate Malaria and Neglected Tropical Disease caucuses. Their efforts to highlight the progress we have made against malaria ensure the President’s Malaria Initiative has the support it needs to combat this treatable and preventable disease.

NGOs will continue to do their part to stop malaria, but we have to look broader than simply providing health services. By teaching agriculture skills and supporting sustainable economic development in areas at risk of malaria, we’re supporting lasting change that will lead to more medical access, educational opportunities, and more local actions to address malaria.

We’ve taken massive leaps towards ending malaria. In fact, 26 countries are on track to eliminate the virus entirely. But there’s still more to do. It’ll take all of us – NGOs, local leaders in at-risk countries, and continued funding from Congress – to finally see the last malaria death.

Speckhard is president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief, an international humanitarian organization. He previously served in both Republican and Democratic administrations as ambassador to Greece and to Belarus, deputy chief of Mission in Iraq, and a senior official at NATO.

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