Faith Communities are Responding to the Challenge of Malaria

Supporting Leaders

Faith Communities are Responding to the Challenge of Malaria

21 Apr 2011

The latest household survey in Sierra Leone found that more than 24 per cent of children under five had been suffering from fever in the past two weeks. It also reported that in 2008 only 26 per cent of under-fives and 27 per cent of pregnant women slept under impregnated bed-nets. Only 15 per cent of children with fever received an antimalarial drug within 24 hours of the onset of their symptoms.

I have visited Sierra Leone several times in the past three years. After its debilitating civil war, it is a desperately poor country with limited resources for healthcare. A major campaign to distribute long-lasting insecticide-treated Nets (LLINs) to every household in Sierra Leone was conducted by the Ministry of Health in November and December 2010.

What needs to accompany this national campaign is training in how to use the bed nets, why children became infected, and why they needed immediate treatment. This is where faith leaders, their networks and their dedicated personnel can play a vital role.

Sierra Leone is not untypical of sub-Saharan African countries in facing an uphill struggle to provide healthcare. Nor is it alone in having undergone a civil war fuelled by predators seeking its natural resources. But it is unusual in the devastation of its health services and the commitment of its government and citizens in the last decade to build them back up from the ruins of a failed state.

It is not difficult to understand why, in a country where it rains fairly solidly from May to September, malaria is a major killer and why the eradication of malaria deaths would make a big impact on maternal and child mortality.

Nor is any elaborate explanation needed as to why the Tony Blair Faith Foundation is setting out in 2011 to support Sierra Leone's various faith communities to realise their potential in halting and reversing the spread of the disease. The networks, leaders, and infrastructure of faith communities are already playing a significant role in healthcare in sub-Saharan Africa. After all, Muslim and Christian leaders played an outstanding role in trying to mediate during the civil war and today interfaith action comes naturally.

So when I think of World Malaria Day, I don't think generically of an abstract Africa or simply of its malaria statistics – 90 per cent of the world's annual 750,000 malaria deaths – but of the sea of young schoolchildren in the streets of Freetown so many of whom will have lost a brother or a sister.

The greatest challenge is the continent-wide fatalism that infection and death from malaria are as natural and inevitable as the heat and the rains. This is no less a challenge than that of freeing the next generation from infection.

But there is real hope and a sustained commitment from governments. There is also good news – the World Health Organization recorded last year that the largest absolute decreases in malaria cases and deaths had been observed in Africa. Heads of State and partners with government, working together, are achieving results.

The African Leaders Malaria Alliance (Alma) was created barely a year and a half ago. But it is already showing what co-ordinated action can achieve.

Formed on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2009 under the leadership of President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and supported by the African Union, it is adding government advocacy to the combined efforts to halt and reverse the spread of the disease on the continent.

Alma was the right initiative in the right place at the right time.

The faith communities have also recently been developing initiatives. The Nigerian Interfaith Action Association (NIFAA), organised by Nigeria's top faith leaders with support from the Washington-based Center for Interfaith Action on Global Poverty, is providing a one-stop-shop for government to channel health funding to faith communities.

This has been particularly effective in training religious leaders in health messages against malaria and how to use bed-nets after national distribution programmes. Nigeria accounts for a quarter of the continent's deaths from malaria.

The idea is that NIFAA will use its extensive religious networks, infrastructure and volunteer armies of Imams and priests to distribute medicines and bed nets, and in the formation of trained health workers. This initiative has been given the backing of the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa'ad Abubakar III, the leading Muslim in the country, and the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Onaiyekan.

If faith communities are to respond to the challenges posed by malaria they need the support of their sister communities around the world. The Tony Blair Faith Foundation is running a global campaign around World Malaria Day, this year on April 25. Eradicating deaths from malaria by 2015, is a huge challenge but one that can be overcome.

The Rt Hon Tony Blair is founder and patron of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation