Sick Africa

Published on 26th April 2005

Monday marked Africa’s Malaria Day. There was not much to write home about, though, as the disease remains one of the continent’s most important public health concerns, causing over a million deaths and up to 500 million clinical cases each year. Most of the 3,000 deaths each day – 10 new cases every second – are in Africa and more than a third of the world\'s total population now lives in malaria endemic areas, according to the World Bank.

The disease also takes a high toll on households and health care systems, impeding development. Ten years ago last Monday, African heads of state meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, committed themselves to halve malaria deaths in a decade. However, 10 years later, malaria continues to kill 90 children under the age of five every day in sub-Saharan countries like Kenya, which are grappling with poverty, illiteracy and HIV/Aids.

It is estimated that malaria reduces GDP growth by approximately one full percentage point per year. The poor are affected most as they have less access to services, information and protective measures, and less power to avoid living or working in malaria-affected areas. This has given a huge business opportunity for Western pharmaceutical companies, which reap billions of dollars from the calamity.

Even though malaria is preventable, a vaccine is not on the immediate horizon. Drug-resistance to affordable anti-malarial drugs, such as chloroquine, is on the rise and while more effective anti-malarials are available, they come at a significantly higher cost.

The most cost-effective interventions against malaria today are rapid diagnosis and effective treatment, the use of insecticide-treated bed-nets, intermittent-presumptive treatment for pregnant women, and epidemic preparedness.

The burden of malaria can be reduced significantly using existing preventive and treatment strategies like use of insecticide treated nets, but this is just a stopgap measure. The international community has set clear targets to reduce the malaria burden in the Millennium Development Goals and has united under the Roll Back Malaria initiative to meet these targets.

But African governments should re-look at the Abuja Declaration and work to avail treated nets to all under five and pregnant mothers (and intermittent treatment to those infected) instead of using billions of money on useless political functions or funding executive lifestyles for the ruling elite.

 It’s sad that an average of only 5% of children sleep under a treated net in Africa, when the ruling elites wallow in idle wealth. The United Nations has described malaria as a continent tragedy. This must act as a wake-up call to our leaders. Africans must put and end to malaria before malaria puts an end to them.

 Our Apologies

Technology is such a funny thing. Man creates it then it goes wild. So wild taming it often comes a bit too late. You must have been furious, as we too were, to get lots of mail in your inboxes last Wednesday.

Most of you wrote to us and we moved swiftly to address the problem. Then – again – on Sunday, the same slippery technology beat us again, resulting in the promotion with an outdated deadline. We’ll try to perfect on these mistakes. Thanks for bearing with us.

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