Leading the Roll Back Malaria Initiative, a global partnership, and using its expertise to deliver fast and effective assistance, UNICEF is at the forefront of the battle against this cruel, mosquito-borne disease. But as with every plan of action, there are hurdles. What exactly will it take to defeat this worldwide threat? And what difficulties will arise?
Last Thursday, the U.S. Fund for UNICEF had the pleasure of presenting a talk by Ms. Valentina Buj, UNICEF Malaria Health Specialist. She spoke about the Malaria Initiative and the challenges faced by UNICEF staff on the ground as they fight the disease.
First, Ms. Buj stressed that malaria must be treated in a prompt and precise manner with ACT (Artemisinin Combination Therapy) drugs. The difficulty with ACT treatment is that the drugs have a short shelf life and lose effectiveness over time. Replacing expired drugs can be challenging, and it can also be difficult to ensure that expired drugs aren't erroneously used to treat patients. Another difficulty: ACT can only be administered to people who have tested 100 percent positive for malaria, or the treatment can have negative effects on the patient’s health, as well as needlessly reduce the already short supply of drugs. Diagnosis can be difficult — the disease’s symptoms—including fever, chills, and headaches—are similar to those of flu and other illnesses.
One of the most effective ways to prevent people from getting malaria is the insecticidal bed net, Ms. Buj continued. Over the past two decades, people’s mindsets have slowly changed toward using these nets, and the realization that they are an effective preventative measure has created a surge in demand. UNICEF is the biggest procurer and distributor of treated bed nets, and while it might seem that distribution would be easy, factors such as ongoing conflict and difficult terrain make some malaria-prone areas highly inaccessible. But UNICEF’s expertise and ongoing presence in malaria-endemic countries enables it to make sure that every child, everywhere, has access to a bed net.
UNICEF staff also monitor the care and maintenance of bed nets. Any hole makes a net completely ineffective. So it is imperative that the most vulnerable, children and pregnant women, sleep under nets that are in good condition and that families replace a net once holes form.
UNICEF has learned from experience, she continued, that the use of bed nets must be a community wide initiative. The insecticide not only protects the families under the bed nets, but it also demonstrates to the rest of the community just how important preventative measures are.
So how is UNICEF able to efficiently lower the death count year after year? The answer lies in two words: maintaining momentum, said Ms. Buj. Nets and ACT drugs need to be replaced constantly; malaria diagnoses need to be made immediately and advocacy kept strong. Thanks to UNICEF’s consistent dedication—along with that of other founding partners in the Roll Back Malaria initiative—over 1.1 million lives have been saved and malaria mortality rates have declined by one-third in Africa and by one-quarter worldwide since 2000.