Michael Gerson

DAKAR, Senegal -- For time beyond remembering, the people of Senegal have lost a battle with malaria, surrendering a portion of their children to fever, organ failure and death, until this terrible sacrifice seemed ordinary. The malaria-spreading mosquito is craftier than any beast of the field. After harvesting infected blood, it injects the malaria parasite in its next target. The developing parasites destroy red blood cells and overwhelm weak immune systems, particularly those of children.

But the mosquito has a weakness of its own. Once it draws blood, it must land to process its meal. If it stops on a wall sprayed with insecticide, or on a treated bed net, it dies, breaking the cycle of transmission.

A few years ago, Senegal began waking from its long malarial nightmare. It was the first African country to set the goal of universal bed net coverage, which it is likely to reach by the end of the year. It was the first to make widespread use of the rapid test for malaria, allowing an accurate diagnosis in 10 minutes. Senegal is conducting indoor spraying campaigns and providing effective, new combination drug treatments. Volunteers are going door to door in impoverished neighborhoods, instructing women in the proper use of nets.

The result? From 2005 to 2008, mortality among Senegalese children ages 6 and under dropped by a third, with reductions in malaria playing a major role. Some communities that had experienced 70 percent to 80 percent malaria prevalence during the high season of one year reported not a single case in the next.

It is a sophisticated, successful national effort. But it would not be possible without the help of the United States, provided through the Peace Corps, the President's Malaria Initiative and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

As I was visiting hospitals and health huts in Senegal, I was also receiving e-mailed updates on House GOP budget cuts. The Global Fund, down 40 percent. Child survival programs, which include anti-malaria efforts, down 10 percent. AIDS relief, down 8 percent. Development assistance, down 30 percent.

These reductions were intended to be symbolic, but what do they symbolize? Fiscal responsibility? Hardly. No one can reasonably claim that the budget crisis exists because America spends too much money on bed nets and AIDS drugs. Our massive debt is mainly caused by a combination of entitlement commitments, an aging population and health cost inflation. Claiming courage or credit for irrelevant cuts in foreign assistance is a net subtraction from public seriousness on the deficit.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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