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Education is key to wiping out malaria in Mozambique

Lare Xaviar lives in Maputo, Mozambique, where all three of her children have had malaria, a disease that kills one in four African children under the age of 5.
UMNS photos by John Gordon.

By Joey Butler*
Nov. 5, 2007 | MAPUTO, Mozambique (UMNS)

Since Lare Xaviar has three children, the odds may be in her favor. If she had four, one likely would not survive.

Malaria kills one in four African children under the age of 5. Though all of her children have had the disease, none have succumbed to it.

"It’s very scary when they have it. The first thing I do is rush them to the hospital, because they can die at any time," Xaviar said.

She describes the symptoms: vomiting, severe diarrhea and high temperatures.

"At night it’s very scary because I don’t have transportation and there’s no ambulance," she said. "I only have a piece of cloth to put cold water on them to keep the temperature low until morning so I can take them to the hospital."

A scourge in Africa

Xaviar’s story is all too common.

Duwahabi Ogoba and her two children
from Lekki, Nigeria, are protected from malaria by an insecticide-treated mosquito net provided by the Nothing
But Nets campaign.  A UMNS file photo
by Mike DuBose.

Ninety percent of malaria deaths worldwide occur in Africa. The disease kills an African child every 30 seconds. Many children who survive an episode of severe malaria may suffer from learning impairments or brain damage. Pregnant women and their unborn children are also particularly vulnerable. In fact, more Mozambicans die from malaria than from HIV/AIDS.

"The issue of HIV/AIDS has dominated our intervention, but I challenge people that HIV/AIDS did not come to take us from other serious problems that affect our continent, one of which is malaria," said the Rev. Dinis Matsono, a United Methodist pastor and head of the Mozambican Christian Council.

The council is part of an ecumenical campaign called Roll Back Malaria, led by Anglican Bishop Dinis Sengulane, president of the Christian Council; United Methodist Bishop João Somane Machado of the Mozambique Area; and a Muslim imam. Roll Back Malaria focuses on how the public needs to be educated about the disease and its prevention.

The council conducts workshops to explain the importance of sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets, wearing long sleeves at night when mosquitoes are most active, and preventing unsanitary conditions that breed the insects. The workshops stress that the fight against malaria is a community effort.

"It does no good to clean my own corner if the corner of my neighbor is not well taken care of," Matsono said. "The mosquitoes of my neighbor can visit me at any time; therefore I have not resolved the problem. We must work together."

Understanding malaria

Machado considers education key to the long-term health of Mozambique.

The Rev. Dinis Matsono preaches at Igreja Metodista Wesleyana Mavalana in Maputo

"In some rural areas, they see all kinds of insects that bite them and they don’t get sick. They must understand that mosquitoes cause the disease," Machado said. "We must teach mothers they can make better food for their children to make their blood stronger, and teach them about boiling water if it is not clean. When we start to teach about what malaria means, we can fight."

Machado cites the importance of initiatives like Nothing But Nets, founded by the people of The United Methodist Church, Sports Illustrated, NBA Cares and the United Nations Foundation to raise money to purchase and distribute sleeping nets.

"Mozambique is not yet a country where you can find health care easily," Machado said. "The unique way to protect children is to have these nets."

He adds that the protection provided by the nets is especially vital in rural areas where clinics may be 20 miles away, and children could likely die before reaching the clinic.

Education must accompany net distribution, however. Matsono describes how some people use the nets for other purposes, such as fishing, when they do not understand that the nets can help prevent malaria. Machado ties such misuses to another obstacle in the fight against malaria: poverty.

"They want food for their kids, so instead of putting them under the nets to sleep, they fish with them," Machado said. "We must give them other ways of finding food. You give the poor people a net and they say, 'God just answered our problems for feeding our kids.'

"We cannot fight malaria with nets alone; we must teach people why we have the nets."

Changing behaviors

Another obstacle to overcome is resistance to adapting lifestyles. Strange as it may seem, some just don’t want to use bed nets.

Carol Kreamer, coordinator of the Missouri Annual (regional) Conference’s Mozambique Initiative, has seen such resistance firsthand.

"I know educated men of means who don’t put their family under the nets," she said. "Others figure if they’re out at night, they’re going to get bit anyway, and they don’t want to be trapped in the house all night. Training is critical. They must learn that malaria doesn’t discriminate and they must change their behavior."

Matsono sees the church playing a role in educating others to protect themselves.

"In this country, there are remote areas where it may be hard to reach them, but the churches are already there. We can reach them through the churches," he said.

"The church is doing a lot to address the issue of malaria, be it from the pulpit or outside the pulpit," Xaviar said. "When you have somebody who is sick, they’re always there to assist you and help get you to the hospital."

Bed nets are a preventative measure, but long-term advancements are being made as well, which pleases Matsono. "It is difficult when so many die in an era with so many technological and medical advances available, knowing it can be prevented," he said.

Matsono says certain species of plants thought to repel mosquitoes have been identified. If this is the case, bringing them to the regions that could benefit and educating people to plant them is the next step.

"We still believe that if the whole world can work together, we can find a vaccine or long-term solution," Machado said, "and the next generation can be living without malaria."

*Butler is managing editor of Interpreter magazine, the official magazine of The United Methodist Church.

News media contact: Joey Butler, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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