Michael Gerson

MONGU, Zambia -- In a global anti-malaria movement I saw begin in Oval Office meetings and international summits, Mongu is at the end of a very long road. Located in western Zambia, about 75 miles from the Angolan border, the town is not close to anywhere. The rivers of the region are more like swamps filling a flood plain, their courses hidden by tall grasses -- from the air, wide, serpentine bands of lime green. If rivers are like arteries, these are clogged.

Standing water breeds mosquitoes, which carry the malaria parasite, which takes the lives of children in seasonal waves. In this part of the world, some parents don't officially name their children until the age of 5, since so many don't survive the killing fields of childhood.

Zambia has been the main test case for anti-malaria efforts during the last several years -- a focus of funding by the U.S. government, the Gates Foundation and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Now the Anglican Church, international aid groups and philanthropists such as Neville Isdell and Chris Flowers are attempting to fill remaining gaps in bed-net coverage in remote border areas, including Mongu.

The work isn't easy. About 19,000 nets are currently distributed in an area needing 200,000. Their proper use requires education. At a ceremony I attended launching a local anti-malaria campaign, a Zambian government official threatened to confiscate bed nets employed as fishing nets or sewn into wedding dresses.

Despite such obstacles, anti-malaria efforts in Zambia have a history of success. From 2001 to 2008, Zambia saw more than a 60 percent reduction in inpatient malaria cases and deaths. The methods of fighting malaria are reliable and relatively non-controversial: long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor residual spraying of insecticides and treatment with effective new drugs.

Successful anti-malaria efforts are an odd hybrid -- part military operation and part church meeting.

The logistics of distributing nets and spraying insecticides require martial scale and organization. Gains against other diseases come arithmetically, dose by dose. Gains against malaria come exponentially, as chunks of geography are secured.

But bed nets can't simply be thrown off trucks. Their employment depends on human behavior. And behavior is only influenced by trusted institutions. So the Anglican Church in Zambia organizes volunteer malaria control agents, each charged with overseeing perhaps 15 households -- making sure the nets are properly installed and not used for fishing and weddings. The success of a vast anti-malaria campaign ultimately depends on a group of compassionate, slightly nosey church ladies.


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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