As president of World Vision Canada, I’ve spent thousands of days on the ground in developing countries. I regularly visit people who are exposed to malaria every night when the mosquitos start humming.
I only took medication to prevent malaria when the risk was obvious, when visiting regions known for their high infection rates. How wrong I was. I contracted the disease last September on a visit to Africa. For the first time in my life, I had a fever so high that I struggled to speak, or even think.
I got malaria because I was careless. But every year, half a million children die from malaria through no fault of their own. Those under age five are especially vulnerable, as their bodies haven’t yet developed immunity to deadly infection.
It’s no way for any human being to leave the world: burning up with fever, struggling for breath, perhaps in a coma and unable to say goodbye. But it’s especially heartbreaking when it’s a child whose life has only just begun.
On World Malaria Day, the global community has the tools to protect children from this kind of fate. The solutions are as simple as insecticide-coated mosquito nets to keep the bugs out, teaching parents to recognize infection in their little ones, and treating infected children with an oral medication.
And these interventions do work. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a worldwide push to prevent and control malaria levels has saved 1.1 million lives in the past decade.
Yet the past two years have been less encouraging. In its World Malaria Report 2012, the WHO notes that we’re seeing “signs of a slowdown that could threaten to reverse the remarkable gains in the fight against one of the world’s leading infectious killers.” Global funding for malaria prevention and control leveled off, the WHO notes, between 2010 and 2012.
For a baby born in Africa today, this is not good news. Her parents may not own a mosquito net. Or, like me, they may not have realized its importance. Because babies and very young children can’t communicate how they’re feeling, parents may not recognize the symptoms. Perhaps the nearest health clinic is too far to reach in time.
Canada has shown incredible leadership in protecting children from malaria and other preventable illnesses. Through the Muskoka Initiative, unveiled at the G8 Summit in 2010, Canada led both G8 and non-G8 leaders to commit $7.3-billion toward reducing maternal and child mortality, and improving the health of mothers and children in the world’s poorest countries.
With another G8 summit coming up in June, Canada can leverage its global leadership in maternal, newborn and child health by encouraging those gathered to start or continue: providing bed nets for children and families, as a key part of a group of measures that are critical to reducing child deaths; sending health workers into remote communities, training volunteers to teach parents about using bed nets and recognizing the symptoms of malaria; and strengthening the capacity of the world’s poorest countries to make health a priority, and reducing mosquito-breeding standing water by improving water sources and sanitation.
Eight months after being diagnosed with malaria back here in Canada, I still recall the profound relief of putting myself in the hands of my doctor. But I’m writing today on behalf of the babies and children around the world who aren’t benefitting from the care I received. Canada can do more.
Dave Toycen is the president and CEO of World Vision Canada and has worked for the relief, development and advocacy organization for 40 years.
Follow us on Twitter: