Toll of malaria high for African women

March 6, 2009

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– Ray Chambers is a philanthropist and humanitarian who has directed most of his efforts towards children. In 2008, the U.N. Secretary-General appointed him as his first Special Envoy for Malaria. The views expressed are his own. –

Malaria infects one quarter of a billion people each year. Nearly one million of those afflicted die, taxing overburdened health infrastructures and decreasing productivity in Africa, where 90 percent of cases occur.

In some countries on the continent, 60 percent of all outpatient visits are malaria related, with one quarter of worker absenteeism due to the disease. Taking all lost time and productivity into consideration, malaria costs Africa more than $30 billion annually.

The mosquito carrying the deadly malaria parasite makes no distinction when choosing its victim. Young or old, male or female, everyone in endemic regions remains at risk; however, International Women’s Day on March 8th prompts us to examine independently the immense burden women shoulder as a result of malaria.

The disease strikes infants, children under five and pregnant women in astonishing disproportion, as these segments of the population account for 90 percent of malaria deaths. Given the dual role of women as both victim and primary protector of victims, malaria clearly belongs under the umbrella of traditional women’s health issues.

It deserves particular recognition as a priority in maternal health, which the World Health Organization defines as pregnancy, childbirth and the six-week postpartum period.

Unfortunately, the early stages of motherhood in Africa can entail suffering, ill-health and even death, as one-in-five African newborns will not live to his or her fifth birthday.

Mothers confront an endless series of menaces, from malnutrition to dehydration, but almost nothing poses a greater threat to the well-being of their children than malaria, which claims three times as many young lives as HIV/AIDS.

Even those children who survive the disease often face lifelong challenges, as the disease robs their brain and body of nutrients at an early age. In turn, over 12 percent of children who do survive suffer long-term cognitive deficiencies.

Malaria raises additional implications with respect to maternal health. Pregnancy in Africa carries an inherent risk for mothers, too frequently resulting in maternal fatality.

When a pregnant woman contracts malaria, this risk becomes significantly greater. Moreover, pregnant women who have malaria also have a higher risk of delivering low-birth-weight babies, a major cause of infant mortality.

While the effects and consequences of malaria appear incredibly dispiriting, reason for hope exists, for we know that we can prevent deaths from malaria among women and children through the application of proven interventions, especially by having them sleep under a long-lasting insecticide-treated mosquito net (LLIN).

Equally as important as this knowledge, we also have harnessed the collective global will and resources to turn the tide against malaria.

In 2008, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a bold call to action to provide all endemic countries essential malaria control interventions by the end of December 2010, a call that rallied a broad coalition of funding and implementation partners, who have pledged over $3 billion in malaria funding.

At this moment, we can point to definite indicators of progress toward our overall goal of universal provision, with data revealing that LLINs now have been distributed to more than 40 percent of the population in endemic African nations, compared to less than 10 percent in 2005.

Over 140 million LLINs have been distributed over the past three years, offering protection to nearly 300 million people.

At the highest levels, women have led us to this unique moment in history. Dr. Awa Marie Coll-Seck, Executive Director of the Roll Back Malaria Partnership, Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, and Ann Veneman, Executive Director of UNICEF, represent only a few of the women who have had a most profound influence in mobilising support.

Concurrently, women have been galvanizing around malaria at a grassroots level, with advocates such as the mother of African soccer star Michael Essien leading malaria eradication programs.

While these and other women have guided us to a point filled with such promise, we hold no hope of reaching our target without the full engagement of women everywhere.

As evidenced with other issues, the unified commitment of women to a cause historically has yielded dramatic results. The collective contributions of women to the malaria effort will prove absolutely essential, especially as we work to increase LLIN utilisation throughout Sub-Saharan Africa in the next 22 months.

On this International Women’s Health Day, the malaria community sits poised to complete an undertaking previously viewed as impossible and, in the process, alleviate the unique and terrible sorrow the disease imposes on women. And it is women on whom the success of this mission so dearly depends.

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