Minus-Malaria’s Campaign: Malaria, Mosquitoes, and More Bednets

GHF held a pancake fundraiser on Sunday. Photo by Brendan Work.

This year, Swarthmore’s Global Health Forum kicked off their Minus Malaria Initiative campaign with a pancake fundraising event and a lecture on the eradication of malaria.

Global Health Forum is a student run organization on campus and their Minus Malaria is a Project Pericles-funded subpart of the group. Jess Downing ’12 discusses how GHF focuses on fundraising, raising awareness, and educating the community.

Rachel Wallwork ’10 explains that GHF’s “Give a Net, Get a Vote” campaign is the group’s latest effort to fight for the eradication of malaria. She expands, “Malaria is one of the top three causes of death in the world but it doesn’t get the type of press as diseases like AIDS. The idea [of Minus Malaria] is educating the public and raising awareness as well as donating money that goes to prevent malaria with bednets.”

This past Sunday’s pancake fundraising event was an effort to help accomplish the campaign’s goals. For every five dollars donated, GHF would send a letter to a legislator or politician on the eradication of malaria and donate a bednet to communities in Sierra Leone. In exchange, the generous student would get unlimited pancakes.

Emilia Thurber ’11 describes the event as highly successful. Over 100 people attended and GHF raised over 600 dollars (the equivalent of 120 bednets).

Thurber explains the concept behind the “Give a Net, Get a Vote” campaign as a fundraising event focused on political activism. She expands, “We’re trying to mix political action with our fundraising. Because we think its important to add a political aspect to our group and when aid is given, it is given in an efficient way and our organization is accountable.”

The second half of GHF’s Minus Malaria Initiative kickoff was a lecture titled, “Can We Eradicate Malaria? An Historical Perspective” by Randall Packard. Professor Packard is the Chair and William H. Welch Professor of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He has an extensive background in areas concerning disease and public health, including writing a book titled, “The Making of a Tropical Disease, A Short History of Malaria.”

Professor Packard’s lecture primarily focused on past historical attempts to eradicate malaria, reasons why they were unsuccessful, and current obstacles we face in eradicating malaria in today’s world. During this lecture, Packard poses the question: is it feasible to eradicate malaria?

In 1955, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a campaign for the global eradication of malaria. However, while there were tremendous successes in the next two decades, WHO ultimately failed and malaria persists to be a significant disease in certain areas of the world.

In 2008, the United States set up a Global Malaria Action Plan to once again work to globally eradicate malaria. While there has been significant progress in the declining of malaria-related mortality rates in West Africa and $1.5 billion dollars have been raised for this campaign, Packard pointed out some crucial flaws. He also compared the past and current campaigns on fighting malaria and discussed the lessons not learned in WHO’s 1955 efforts.

The global efforts to eradicate malaria, according to Packard, have an overconfidence in the power of technology. Organizations assume that one can simply come into a village, spray everywhere, and then move on to the next village in malaria-infested areas.

Unfortunately, malaria cannot be eradicated simply through thorough spraying. Packard believes that one of the major reasons why the 1955 campaign failed and the 2008 campaign is currently struggling is because of these programs’ failures to address social factors. Factors such as unstable populations with refugees coming in and out, poor communications and administrative infrastructure, weak national health services, and a lack of coordination with other developmental programs all contributed for the 1955 program’s failure.

For example, in Swaziland, DDT, a pesticide used to control mosquitoes, was sprayed throughout the country. However, when agricultural companies moved into the country’s lower belt to start businesses, they had to recruit labor from Mozambique because local labor was difficult to find in Swaziland. Unfortunately, there was no malaria control program in Mozambique and the migrant laborers spread malaria to the previously malaria-free Swaziland. Packard describes, “The lack of coordination with other development programs undermined what would have been a successful eradication effort.”

Now, in the current campaign against malaria, Packard explains that we again put too much stock in technology and ignore the cultural implications behind our campaigns. For instance, a 2009 report in the Malaria Journal records that of the 200 households in Burkino Faso who have received free bednets, one-third of them stopped using them after one year.

Packard argues, “We need more investment to helping people understand what they need to do, we cannot just keep giving them the technology.”

Moreover, there are underlying social problems correlated with malaria that today’s campaign is not considering. In this section of his lecture, Packard primarily focuses on sub-Saharan Africa because it is the one of the most predominantly malaria- infested area in the world.

For instance, Packard’s presentation included a map that demonstrated the correlation between areas of armed conflict and the intensity of malaria in those same places. He justifies, “Armed conflicts weakens health systems, disrupts malarial control, transforms environments, and displaces people.” In the Democratic Republic of Congo, WHO wanted to distribute a total of 500,000 bednets but only distributed 24,000 due to nation’s armed conflicts. The nation’s forest cover has been destroyed, leaving the land susceptible to breeding sites. Also, the war in the Congo has displaced populations and refuges have a high risk of introducing malaria into low risk, nearby areas.

Another crucial issue Packard pointed out is the positive relationship between poverty and malaria. Packard argues that there is an inverse relationship between a nation’s Gross National Product and the prevalence of malaria in that nation; in other words, poorer countries tend to have more malaria-related problems. Packard explains, “Malaria takes a toll on economic development and the correlation also works the other way around.”

While malaria can be an equal opportunity infection, there are subtle differences in people being able to protect themselves with technology (for instance, people who have more money are more likely to use nets).

Therefore, with all these social factors to consider, is it possible to eliminate malaria in ways similar to how the world eliminated smallpox? Packard argues that no, it is not feasible for the world to eliminate malaria because we cannot promise continuing international financial support and we do not have plans for helping countries become sustainable in their malaria programs.

Additionally, Packard believes that we do not need to eradicate malaria. He explains that efforts to eradicate malaria create false hopes and we should instead set more feasible goals such as a zero mortality rate from malaria. In fact, he even confesses that he fears that technology will develop a vaccine for malaria, the world will take the spotlight off malaria, and then we would never deal with malaria’s underlying issues, such as armed conflicts and poverty.

Though Packard’s lecture seemed incongruous with some of the Minus Malaria initiative goals, he decided to generously donate his honorarium to GHF. He fully supports the “Give a Net, Get a Vote” campaign and students’ efforts to raise money and donate bednets to countries infested with malaria.

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