Hope, progress abound vs. malaria in Africa

Emmanuel Kolini, Rick Warren & John Bridgeland | 28 Jan 2007
Enquirer (Cincinnati)
Success against death and despair is often unnoticed in our daily lives. Today, however, a few remarkable steps - across America and in the tiny, formerly war-torn nation of Rwanda - are moving us toward a new year's story of hope.

As two pastors and a civic activist, we have a story to tell with three datelines and thousands of heroes. Starting in Rwanda, at Saddleback Church, and at the White House, Americans and Africans are doing something about a horrific disease that is stunningly preventable.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush reiterated his support for this $1.2 billion, five-year initiative that aims to cut malaria-related deaths by 50 percent in 15 target countries in Africa. A recent White House Summit on Malaria brought forth new volunteers, resources and networks of support to help meet this goal.

In America, we virtually eradicated malaria half a century ago, but today in Africa, a million people each year die from this treatable but deadly disease. Rwanda, a place of genocide in the 1990s, has become a leader in this fight.

Malaria takes a heavy toll in Rwanda as the leading cause of mortality and morbidity. Thirty-four percent of children under five who die, die because of malaria. From 2004 to 2005, malaria cases grew from 1.2 million to 1.5 million, numbers that hide the full problem since one-third of Rwandans utilize public health services.

Rwanda targeted

Even though malaria is preventable and treatable, transmission has increased over the last 10 years as a result of drug-resistance, growth in population density, and more mosquito breeding areas due to development.

Progress is possible, and a plan has been developed to combat it. Led by Rwanda's National Malaria Control Program, Rwanda has been designated by the U.S. President's Malaria Initiative for rapid coverage of vulnerable groups with effective interventions - life-saving drug treatments, preventive treatments for malaria in pregnancy, insecticide treated mosquito nets, and indoor spraying.

All of these efforts must work in partnership with the people on the ground most affected by malaria, and the church must play a central role. Rwanda has more than 9 million people, the vast majority of whom live in rural areas.

Churches have universal distribution throughout the country, can mobilize significant numbers of volunteers, and draw people who have credibility in their communities. Churches are also good record-keepers, a key asset when countries track mortality rates and the impact malaria control efforts are having on saving lives.

In the village of Rukara, a faith-based health center has recruited 49 community health workers who lead efforts to bring malaria under control. These workers visit homes three times a week to ensure families are accessing appropriate health care, using bed nets correctly, seeking treatment for children with malaria symptoms, and practicing basic sanitation.

Recruiting village elders

Rukara is the exception, however, and African children continue to die in increasing numbers. It is time to act.

The churches of Rwanda, in partnership with Saddleback Church, are initiating a plan to reduce poverty, disease and malnutrition. This partnership is based entirely on the leadership of village elders, and on their priorities, approach and control of the process.

A new nonprofit effort called Malaria No More is mobilizing a global, grass-roots network of millions of people to combat malaria and has agreed to come alongside the Rwandan Church to assist them in training volunteers, and closing gaps in prevention and treatment. Malaria No More is raising $10 donations to buy bed nets, train volunteers to distribute the nets, and educate those at risk on how to use the nets.

In collaboration with Malaria No More, Saddleback Church, working together with the Rwandan church leadership, is mobilizing 1,000 church leaders throughout Rwanda and 100,000 additional volunteers from faith-based communities over the next three years to educate and train 2.5 million villagers on the comprehensive approach to control malaria as part of primary health care.

The power of faith

Rwandan Church leaders want to make Rwanda a test case for demonstrating the power of faith-based institutions in controlling malaria and sustaining primary health care efforts. Local church, government, and business/non-governmental organization leaders are cooperating in Rwanda and have committed to sharing their distribution model with other countries as they discover what works best.

Significant gaps in malaria prevention and treatment still exist, but with the ongoing support highlighted by Bush last week, the private and public sectors can help fill the gaps to reduce child mortality. Churches, companies, civil society leaders and individuals must play a lead role in this next great call to end needless suffering from a preventable scourge.

Emmanuel Kolini is the archbishop of Rwanda; Rick Warren is senior pastor of the Saddleback Church and sponsor of the plan to bring churches, education and health care to Africa; and John Bridgeland, a Cincinnati native and former White House official, is CEO of Malaria No More (www.malariaNOMORE.org).