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Guest blogger Dee Benzing is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and works on the Case Foundation's international programs. She will be traveling to South Sudan on a medical relief mission in January, and will blog about her experiences here.
When many people think of Africa, the stories that come to mind are frequently discouraging – there is so much need and there often seems to be so little progress. But, in this season of giving and renewal, it’s important to highlight the significant work that has been done, and the many stories of hope that are emerging.
Last week a major effort was launched in Nigeria that should inspire us all. An inter-religious team, representing the most powerful leaders in the Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria, is working together to fight malaria, one of the greatest - and most easily preventable - public health problems of our time.
In a blog post he wrote for the Huffington Post, John Bridgeland, President & CEO of Civic Enterprises and Vice Chairman of Malaria No More, recently highlighted both the devastating realities of this disease, and the exciting work that is being done on so many levels to end the suffering that it causes:
"Malaria is a disease of sad contradiction - it is fully preventable and treatable, yet it kills about 1 million people every year, mostly pregnant women and children in Sub-Saharan Africa. It can be stopped with tools we already have - bed nets and spraying of homes that protect families from the mosquitoes that transmit the disease, preventive treatment for pregnant women, and miracle drugs that cure malaria.
The troops to eliminate malaria are on the march. In the last decade, an unbreakable syndicate of hope has emerged - including a new Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Bank, the President's Malaria Initiative, the Gates Foundation, and others - which is investing billions to end malaria deaths in Africa by 2015. Nobel Prize winning economists make the case, as does Bill Gates, that malaria control is one of the best investments to ensure a country's economic growth. Africa loses at least $12 billion in GDP every year from the ravages of malaria - for a fraction of that cost, we could end it."
The investments that wealthy nations and private philanthropists are making in the effort to end malaria have changed the lives of millions, and has changed the way the world thinks about public health as an instrument of development. But, they have also served as a reminder that no amount of money, in the absence of popular support and local action, can generate long-lasting results.
At its most basic level, public health is about people, not diseases or programs. The most successful public health initiatives of our time have involved strong grassroots efforts, and individuals taking responsibility for creating the change that they want to see in their communities and in the world. What is so exciting about the Nigerian story is that, while the government is providing the mosquito nets - a crucial tool for malaria control - it is the local interfaith community that is leading the charge on this ambitious task: to distribute 63 million treated bed nets to 3 million households within a year. By coming together to bridge differences, and to take responsibility for eliminating a disease that drains the lifeblood from their community, these leaders serve as a reminder to us all of the power - and the responsibility - we all have to change the world we live in.