This World Malaria Day, It’s Time To #StepUpTheFight

Too Long, Didn’t Read: it’s World Malaria Day today (Saturday 25th April). Huge progress has been made over the last 20 years, yet it’s still amongst the leading causes of child mortality across the world despite being entirely preventable through simple solutions like bed nets. There are many ways to help, even if you’re not in a position to donate bed nets themselves.

If you do have the means to donate and wish to, it will be increased six-fold today (25th April). Skip to the bottom of the article to find out how, or donate bed nets now and 6x your donation.

One of the world’s oldest and deadliest foes

Every two minutes, a child dies of malaria. That’s the equivalent of two 747s crashing every day. When you take into account those older than five as well, that number increases to three every day. It’s one of humankind’s oldest foes, said to have killed up to half of all humans that have ever walked the earth. References to it have been found in texts dating as far back as ancient Greece and China. Tutankhamun, George Washington, Alexander the Great, Christopher Columbus and Mahatma Gandhi have all suffered from malaria, and so have I.

My own experience with malaria

Regardless of its prevalence and vast historical importance, it’s easy to underestimate the impact of malaria in the modern world. To speak candidly, I’m probably not the kind of patient that comes to mind when you think of malaria. Statistically, that’s true. I’m a healthy young adult from a Level 1 country whereas 80% of the malaria burden is carried by sub-Saharan Africa. It disproportionately affects children under five and pregnant women by a huge magnitude. People like me don’t get malaria. That is, until they do.

I’d been back from Uganda for about 10 days when I first started to feel ill. Not ill enough to be overly concerned or think it was a deadly parasite. It was a Tuesday when I first felt any symptoms. I left the office early in the afternoon and slept for 8 hours to try and shake minor chills (it was Canada in winter after all), uncharacteristic tiredness, and slight nausea I’d been feeling. I woke up briefly in the evening before returning to bed and sleeping through the night.

The next day, on Wednesday, I felt right as rain so I thought nothing of it.

On Thursday, I started to feel ill once again. I was sat in Toronto’s Drake Hotel with a colleague, sat on a conference call in a coat to combat the chills that had reappeared. They quickly worsened, and I excused myself to throw up in the bathroom and made my way home — stopping en route to vomit in an alley. Admittedly, not my finest moment. Once again, I slept and felt much better for it. I woke up on Friday feeling fine, but went to the doctors as a precaution. They took some bloodwork and said they’d have the results in a few days for me. They weren’t too concerned, so neither was I.

Saturday was probably the worst day of my life. I spent it on the bathroom floor, crawling between the bathtub and toilet. I was aggressively vomiting to the point of feeling delirious with dehydration and fatigue. It was uncontrollable, and by the end of the day I felt broken. A splitting head, body aches and chills vigorously shaking my body seemed like the least of my worries at the time. The pain was intense, all-consuming.

I took myself to the hospital, but still the severity of the situation hadn’t registered. I presumed it was just something that I’d picked up on vacation. A stomach bug, nothing to worry about. That was until I was told at the hospital, after being isolated under an Ebola protocol, that tests had confirmed that I had contracted the deadliest form of malaria — plasmodium falciparum — and that it was destroying my red blood cells at an alarming rate. The doctor that day told me in no uncertain terms that I was lucky to be alive, that it could have turned fatal within 12 hours of first feeling ill. Apparently, the 2-day cycle of worsening illness is common.

She reassured me that the outlook was good and that I should be fine so I wasn’t too worried, but I did feel stupid that I’d been callous in waiting 4/5 days since feeling ill to go to the hospital, never one to cause a fuss. I started ACT treatment immediately, and began to recover after a few days in the hospital. By the time I left I was 18 pounds (8kg) lighter, exhausted and weak.

I had learned the hard way that the malaria parasite doesn’t discriminate. I’d experienced first hand the impact of the malaria, transmitted by a simple mosquito bite, when it sets up camp in your bloodstream — the debilitating fatigue and weakness, nausea and violent vomiting, constant sweating and shivering, and the downward spiral that won’t stop unless you receive critical care. I was fortunate enough to survive, in no small part to the exceptional care at Toronto’s Mount Sinai. Others, 405,000 of them in 2019 alone, weren’t so lucky. 67% of them were children under 5.

A fight worth fighting

I appreciate that I was incredibly fortunate to receive the medical care I did, simply by virtue of being born in a Level 1 country with access to world-class healthcare. The majority of people worldwide that contract malaria aren’t so privileged. Malaria outbreaks are an ongoing plight for low-income communities across the world, those that do not have access to malaria interventions and adequate healthcare. There are still roughly 230 million annual cases that impact families across the world.

The good news is solutions are simple, effective, and affordable. Since 2000, global initiatives like the distribution of mosquito nets have saved an estimated seven million lives. That’s the population of Toronto twice over. That two-minute statistic? It used to be a child every thirty seconds. Overall, the global malaria death rate has fallen by 60% and sixteen once-malarial countries have eliminated the disease since 2000.

That’s vast amounts of people and whole communities not only surviving, but thriving.

Public health investment of this kind makes economic sense too. Children attending school, receiving an education and contributing, not only to their community, but to the global economy too. It’s adults that can go back to work. It’s parents that can be there for their family. According to forecasts, the global return on investment in ending malaria by 2030 could reach a staggering 40:1, and 60:1 if malaria is eliminated in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Eradicating malaria could save an estimated 11 million lives and unlock an estimated $2 trillion in economic benefits, according to the Aspiration to Action Report.

Bed nets have been shown to be an incredibly impactful, cost-effective solution. Malaria is an entirely preventable problem. A net that protects a family in need costs as little as $10. Since 2000, the rate of households in Sub-Saharan Africa who own a bednet has increased from 2% to 60%, whilst the number of cases in the region dropped by 48% in the same time frame — research indicated that 68% of cases averted were due to bed nets.

The work is far from finished.

The reduction in incidence and deaths since the turn of the century is one of the most astounding public health achievements in our history, yet it has largely flown under the radar. Incredible progress has undoubtedly been made, but over the last few years that progress has stalled. Funding has plateaued. Mosquitoes are resisting previously effective insecticide. Cases are on the rise for the first time in a decade, and more than half of the world’s population is still at risk, living in fear of a tiny mosquito bite. Pregnant women and children under 5 are most at risk of this disease, along with refugees and migrant populations, who often are unable to take bed nets with them when fleeing conflict and violence, have compromised immunized systems, and are not protected under government malaria control programs.

What’s more, COVID-19 is also placing additional strain on health systems around the world and disrupting malaria intervention. A new modelling study by WHO predicts that nearly 770,000 people could die if malaria activities are disrupted due to COVID-19, almost doubling the 2019 figures and setting progress back twenty years.

How I’m Getting Involved

After my own experience with malaria, I want to do my bit to help prevent the spread of malaria and improve treatment, particularly for those less fortunate than I. After a bit of research and reading around the topic, I decided to reach out to the team at Nothing But Nets. They are the world’s largest grassroots campaign to save lives by fighting malaria by bringing together its UN partners, advocates, celebrity champions, and organizations to raise awareness, funds, and voices to protect vulnerable families from malaria. After a conversation and some follow up with the wonderful Jonathan Kidwell, I’ve decided to support Nothing But Nets and advocate to end malaria. At a time when global health is on everyone’s mind and we recognize that diseases tragically do not respect borders, we must continue to call on leaders across government, business and society to come together in the fight against malaria.

With the help of the great team at Nothing But Nets, I’ll be doing more in the future to help in the fight against malaria in the hope that I can turn my experience of contracting malaria on its head to deliver a positive impact for others, whether that’s through fundraising, awareness campaigns, or other initiatives. Watch this space!

With continued action we can be the generation that defeats the malaria endemic together. On this World Malaria Day, now is the time to raise your voice and #StepUpTheFight.

Here’s how you can help:

Donate malaria nets and 6x your donation (April 25th only):

  • This World Malaria Day, your gift will help provide frontline healthcare workers with the tools they need to prevent, diagnose and treat malaria for thousands of refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
  • For donations made today through this fundraiser I’ll personally DOUBLE the amount raised (up to $250).
  • Nothing But Nets will then TRIPLE that doubled amount which means your initial donation will buy 6x the amount of nets and have 6x the impact
  • It only takes $10 to send two bed nets to protect families in need. It only costs as little as $5 to test and treat a child for malaria.

Download the Charity Miles app to raise funds by exercising:

  • This nifty app logs your daily exercise and partners with sponsors like Garmin and Johson & Johnson to donate money to a charity of your choice for every mile you move! It even which pairs with popular fitness tracking apps like Fitbit and Strava too.

Learn more by reading WHO’s World Malaria Report 2019, or keep informed with Nothing But Nets’ newsletter.

Raise awareness simply by sharing this article or any of the social media assets below.

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