Blame it on the malaria

I have some weird habits. I sequester myself inside my hut as soon as the sun sets. I put on thick wool socks with jeans after I bathe on evenings so hot and humid I could cut the air with a butter knife and slather it all over my body. (Oh wait, that’s sweat. On the other hand, my skin where not pockmarked by mosquito bites is looking fabulous.) And I crawl into bed at a ridiculously early hour to seek refuge under my mosquito net from flying harbingers of death. As if my neighbors needed more reason to think that their resident muzungu is an odd duck. All in the name of trying to avoid getting malaria.

The other day I met Sebastian at his ponds and my counterpart raised an eyebrow as he appraised my Chacos with calf-length socks. This is a very fashionable look in America, I told him. We joke that white people are more susceptible to getting bit by mosquitoes than Zambians because our light skin makes us easier for them to spot, like a giant illuminated landing strip with flashing lights that spell out “bite me.” The truth though is that malaria is an equal-opportunity disease, and Zambia is right smack in the middle of the region with the highest percentage of malaria deaths in the world.

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Malaria is so ubiquitous here that in my village it’s used pretty much interchangeably with being sick in general. 15-year-old Emily stopped by this morning to take my daily produce order and when I asked her,“Ku ngangda kuli shani?” (how is your household?), she told me that her 2-year-old sister Frida was sick (Frida balalwala). I asked, “Balalwala nshi?” (What kind of sickness does she have?) Sure enough, Emily replied, “Malaria.” Little Frida toddled up a few seconds later with an impressively runny nose and toothy grin, waving a sticky paw at me; she may have had a cold, but it definitely wasn’t malaria.

Emily’s diagnosis was a slight exaggeration, but the pervasive prevalence of malaria in daily life here isn’t. An incredible four million people in Zambia are afflicted by malaria each year, with nearly 8,000 of them dying from this disease. Over half of these deaths are children under five years of age and many of the rest are pregnant mothers (20% of maternal mortality is attributed to malaria). In the United States, we simply don’t have anything remotely comparable in scale or parameters of devastation. This would be roughly equivalent to 100 million Americans contracting malaria every year with 200,000 deaths, 100,000 of the malaria victims being children under five. That would be more than sixty times the number of people who died on September 11, 2001. That would be five thousand times as many children as were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Now, I’m not comparing dying from malaria to being killed by terrorists. (For one thing, malaria deaths are largely preventable.) I’m just trying to illustrate the sheer scope of malaria’s influence in Zambia. If this large of a percentage of the United States’ population was dying from anything remotely fixable, you better believe we’d be doing everything we could to fix it.

As a global society, we have advanced technologically to the point where we now have prevention prophylaxis and treatment medicine which reduces the risk of dying from malaria to virtually nil. If it gets into the hands of the people who need it. Or, perhaps more accurately, if it gets into the hands of people who have the money to afford it and the education to understand its importance. Case in point: deaths caused by malaria have already been all but eliminated in developed nations. And right now, the grim fact is that whether or not a child will die from malaria largely hinges on the random lottery of where in the world she happens to be born and the color of her mother’s skin.

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Everyone from the Zambian government to the U.S. government to NGOs to fellow Peace Corps volunteers are working to ensure that medicine is available in clinics, that communities are sensitized to what malaria really is and how to avoid getting it, and that people are educated on the importance of seeking appropriate treatment if they do contract it. March is Malaria Month in Peace Corps, and all across the world volunteers are working on malaria sensitization and education. Many are trying to educate people in their host countries; some are trying to educate people back home in their own country. Simply telling people about malaria may not sound like it would do much, but if the result of promoting this awareness is that one fewer Zambian thinks that you can get malaria from proximity to animals, drinking dirty water, or witchcraft, then it won’t have been for naught.

I’ve been learning a lot about malaria over the past year. Not only about the disease itself, but also about what its prevalence in the poorest countries on Earth means within the framework of our increasingly interconnected world. And simply by reading this and understanding that having been born in suburban America instead of in sub-Saharan Africa gives you the equivalent of a winning lottery ticket with a potential value as high as your life, now you are too.

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Photo credit: stompoutmalaria.org

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