World Malaria Day 2012: Dreams for the future

This blog post by ONE’s Global Health Policy Manager Erin Hohlfelder was originally published on the PSI Healthy Lives blog.

I was recently up on Capitol Hill, chatting with a member of Congress about malaria. He was recounting a trip he took to Tanzania and the health precautions he had to take while there, including taking anti-malarial pills. He had chosen to take Larium (one of a handful of options recommended by the CDC) and was shocked by the horrible dreams he experienced night after night. I was familiar with his story because I have heard it from so many other friends and colleagues who have also taken Larium while traveling to Africa and experienced the same side effect.

AWULU, GHANA – 2012: Visit to President’s Malaria Initiative site during ONE’s listening and learning trip to Ghana. Photo credit: Morgana Wingard

While no one enjoys bad dreams, his story made me pause and think that the anecdote is — in many ways — the perfect #firstworldproblem. Because as uncomfortable as a bad night’s sleep can be, what’s worse is contracting malaria, a disease that killed more than 655,000 people last year alone.

Even for those of us who work in global health, it’s amazingly easy to feel numb to the devastating impact of malaria. Sure, we know it’s a major killer, but solutions like indoor residual spraying are easy to understand and explain. Bed nets are simple products that conveniently lend themselves to artistic photographs. In advocacy materials, we are shown the smiling mother and her ebullient baby who have been able to access treatment and stay healthy; we are rarely see or experience the ugly and senseless toll that malaria has racked up.

And for most of us lucky enough to pop by a local pharmacy before flying across the world, we aren’t ever left vulnerable to the splitting headaches, dangerous fevers, and potential death from malaria that millions of women and children are exposed to daily. So at most, we have to worry about buying a bottle of water to take our pills, and we bravely risk having some crazy dreams.

When I think about malaria, my mind always travels back to Bill and Melinda Gates’ inaugural Living Proof speech in Washington, D.C. The vast majority of their presentation was colorful and upbeat, filled with stories and statistics that underscored the value of effective foreign aid programs. Near the end, though, they threw the audience a curve ball. They played a devastating video clip (see below) of a mother in the back of a car, trying desperately to get her daughter Shayla — at that point near death from malaria — to a clinic for treatment. Decades of watching Hollywood films gave the audience hope that the ending would be OK against all odds, and yet it wasn’t. Shayla dies, and the clip ends with the mother wailing, grieving. In many ways it was the “anti-living proof,” but for me it was one of the most poignant and important parts of the presentation.

In this new era of austerity, advocates fighting for more money for programs such as PMI and the Global Fund need to make sure we are ready for a fight. And to arm ourselves, we need to remember not just the easy development jargon about “cost effective solutions” (though of course they are incredibly important, too) but also the real, brutal impact of a disease our programs are aiming to end. As we advocate on World Malaria Day, we should remember Shayla and all the others who were unable to access treatment in time, and their memory should drive us forward. My hope is that we can redouble our efforts to scale up access to life-saving treatment, so that by 2015, regardless of where someone lives, a death from malaria is nothing more than a bad dream.