Two members of the British Parliament recently visited Malawi and Ethiopia to witness the countries' malaria control efforts. In Ethiopia, they were joined by the well known singer and UNICEF Spokesperson on Malaria for Eastern and Southern Africa, Yvonne Chaka Chaka.
The UK officials and Ms. Chaka Chaka witnessed continuing efforts to provide those at risk of malaria - particularly pregnant women and children under five years of age - with insecticide-treated bed nets that protect them from mosquitoes carrying the killer disease.
UNICEF provides the bed nets at no cost to partner governments. Depending upon national policies, the nets are then distributed either free of charge or at highly subsidized prices in local communities.
The campaign against malaria also seeks to provide prompt, affordable and appropriate treatment to those who contract the disease, which remains one of the biggest killers of young children in many African nations.
Nets and treatment in Malawi
Stephen O'Brien, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Eddisbury and Shadow Minister for Health, and Lord Nicholas Rea, a Labour peer in the House of Lords, were invited by UNICEF to Malawi and Ethiopia in view of their parties' work on malaria.
In Malawi, they met the Minister of Health and saw firsthand the government's commitment to fighting the disease. Funding has been increased and the distribution of mosquito nets scaled up, with effective malaria treatment widely available to mothers and children under five.
In late 2005, more than 2 million nets were distributed in Malawi, bringing the country one step closer to the so-called Abuja Target - providing mosquito nets to at least 60 per cent of those at risk of malaria.
Success in Ethiopia
In Ethiopia, Mr. O'Brien, Lord Rea and Ms. Chaka Chaka witnessed the ongoing drive to distribute 20 million mosquito nets to 10 million households by the end of 2007.
"Thirteen out of the 20 million targeted nets have been distributed, and they are being used - I can testify to that," said Ms. Chaka Chaka. "I have gone to different homes and have seen people hanging their nets and sleeping under them. They have also testified that, 'Yes, we are not getting bitten by mosquitoes anymore.' So for me, that is really a success story."
Working with partners such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the US Agency for International Development and the Canadian International Development Agency, UNICEF is helping to procure the nets on behalf of the Ethiopian Government.
UNICEF also provides malaria test kits, which are portable and easy to use, as well as essential anti-malarial drugs.
Building better health systems
Despite the signs of progress they witnessed, the UNICEF delegation also saw setbacks in the two countries' health systems.
In Malawi, poor infrastructure and chronic under-funding have forced large numbers of health workers to emigrate in search of better jobs. The situation is similar in Ethiopia, where the authorities are training 30,000 health workers to fill the staff shortage and meet the ever-increasing demand for health professionals.
In Ethiopia, Ms. Chaka Chaka pointed out that more education is needed to help end stigma and superstitious fears that prevent people in many communities from sleeping under mosquito nets. Fighting malaria is a cause that is close to her heart, she added, in part because one of her band members was killed by the disease in 2004.
"This prompted me to want to do something about it," said Ms. Chaka Chaka. "I was so distraught, I needed to do something to make sure that no other person dies of malaria any more. I know that is wishful thinking, but I thought with my voice and image, I could help."
And if more progress is to be made against malaria, much more help - in the form of political will and greater funding - will be needed to ensure a strong prevention and treatment programme.