Last World Malaria Day, UNICEF staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo distributed 13.7 million treated mosquito nets to protect children from the deadly disease. Here, UNICEF Malaria Health Specialist Valentina Buj explains why it's a battle worth fighting for children.
The first time I saw a child die from malaria, I thought my heart would break. This feeling of sorrow has never stopped, but in addition to sadness I also feel anger that somewhere in the world, malaria continues to end a life every minute. That’s about 1,400 children dying every day. A completely unacceptable statistic when malaria is preventable and curable.
A young woman sits under a mosquito net in an indigenous Baka settlement in the northern Likouala Province. Malaria is a major health concern in this remote community. © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2548/Graeme Williams
Malaria kills about 700,000 people every year. Almost half of the world’s population (3.3 billion people), especially those living in the world’s poorest countries, are at risk of contracting malaria each year.
Malaria accounts for 8 per cent of under-five mortality globally and represents a whopping 16 per cent of under-five mortality in Africa – that means that one out of every six children who die in Africa die from malaria.
Help save lives: buy mosquito nets for 10 families in Africa
I started working in malaria almost by accident. In 2001, I was in Turkey with UNDP and was handed a stack of project dossiers to evaluate. The one on top happened to be about a recently constructed dam in the south east of the country and a rise in malaria cases among migrant workers there.
I was fascinated by the epidemiology, the environmental and human rights issues, and was inflamed by the injustice that a preventable, curable disease which most people thought had been eradicated in the 1960s was still killing millions of people throughout the world. I must confess I never got to the other six dossiers. Malaria became my red thread – guiding my studies and research.
It's been an extraordinary decade to work in malaria. Heightened visibility has meant more funding and more interest in getting this deadly disease under control.
In 2011 we celebrated the fact that over the last decade more than one third of malaria endemic countries have successfully cut malaria cases by 50 per cent or more and that global malaria deaths dropped by over 20 per cent between 2000-2009 – an achievement that in 2000 we didn’t even dare dream about. However, much more remains to be done.
Controlling malaria is cheap: it’s giving children a 40 pence diagnostic test and treating them with 70 pence worth of effective anti-malarials. It’s getting a insecticide-treated bednet, costing less than £5, over children’s heads at night which can protect them for up to three years. It's not an easy feat in difficult terrains like the Democratic Republic of Congo, but I saw it done in 2009 when UNICEF helped distribute 5.5 million nets.
A mural promoting the use of mosquito nets painted on a wall at the UNICEF offices in Brazzaville, the capital of DRC. © UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2543/Graeme Williams
I continue to work in malaria because it's preventable and curable. in just three days, simple diagnostics and drugs can cure this deadly disease and give small children the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong. I continue to do so with UNICEF because my colleagues inspire me, and I'm part of an organisation that's working on all aspects of protecting children: from fundraising, to procuring the anti-malaria materials, to ensuring they're delivered to the most hard-to-reach households.
I continue fighting because we're at the brink of an historic opportunity to beat back this disease and give children the best possible chance at life – free from malaria.
Buy special mosquito nets to protect 10 families in Africa
Valentina Buj is UNICEF Malaria Health Specialist