Ruth Riley saw firsthand the effects of malaria.
From the overcrowded and humid medical clinics to the recent flooding that has caused a spike in the disease, the Shock center's recent trip to Africa was eye-opening.Riley visited Nigeria and Angola the last week of January to participate in Malaria Observation Days. The trip was part of NBA Cares' Nothing But Nets initiative, a global campaign to fight malaria in Africa by delivering insecticide-treated bed nets.
Malaria is a disease caused by a blood parasite transmitted by mosquitoes.
Riley, along with former NBA player Sam Perkins and Elizabeth McKee, the director of marketing for the United Nations Foundation, distributed nets and dedicated two refurbished basketball courts to local communities.
Seeing the suffering caused by malaria had a profound affect on Riley.
"I was shocked because I've never seen it before," she said. "I think that being introduced to malaria and the conditions, being aware of the need over there, it's just little things we take for granted. It was an eye-opening experience, for sure."
Riley met mothers with children suffering from malaria and educated them on how to use the insecticide-treated nets.
She spoke with health care workers and visited seven clinics, ranging from a large hospital to a one-doctor health post, to see the effects of malaria and how the campaign is contributing to its prevention. Riley said hospitals and clinics were at maximum capacity and in most cases overcrowded, describing the conditions as "dire."
"When you see children crammed into an emergency room, a hospital bed where three or four of them are suffering from malaria, dehydration or other diseases ... I'm really passionate about what I'm doing and how we can help," Riley said.
While speaking to health care workers, McKee said she was surprised at the lack of funding for hospitals. "I really felt the doctors were doing the best that they could with the resources they had."
Since its inception last May, Nothing But Nets has raised more than $3 million in donations, McKee said.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation started matching dollar-for-dollar donations in January, when the initiative raised more than $500,000 alone.
The campaign has distributed more than 120,000 nets throughout Nigeria, where at least a million children under the age of 5 die each year from malaria, according to The President's Malaria Initiative, a $1.2-billion, five-year program aimed to control malaria in Africa. President George W. Bush announced the plans in June 2005.
Donations can be made at www.nothingbutnets.net. A $10 donation purchases one net and includes distribution and education.
Riley, who has been involved with community service since her days at Notre Dame, wrote a blog for wnba.com chronicling her seven-day stay in Angola and Nigeria.
Highlights from Riley's trip included the unveiling of two basketball courts in Lagos, Nigeria, and running a fundamentals camp.
"The kids who were going to use the court, we were able to kind of interact a little bit and teach them a few things," Riley said. "There was a lot of excitement by the people there to use the court. Sometimes, when you go into countries to do goodwill acts, it's great. But we feel even better for leaving something behind for them to use. They're excited about the sport of basketball. I think it was a little more fulfilling for us."
Now that Riley is back home, she plans to spread the word about malaria. Riley is expected to be at NBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas next week, where she'll staff an NBA Cares information booth to discuss what Americans can do to help prevent malaria.
"Their celebrity offers something to us that's a huge value," McKee said. "It's amazing with their outreach, they have the ability to raise awareness (about) a very simple task: Send a net, save a life."