A Contest Between CNN and Ashton Kutcher Focuses Attention on Malaria.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

AT FIRST BLUSH, the hyped contest between Hollywood actor Ashton Kutcher and CNN to see who could get 1 million "followers" on Twitter struck us as, well, pointless. That is until we learned that the bet resulted in 10,000 insecticide-treated bed nets being sent to Africa to help stop malaria, a disease that kills almost 1 million people, most of them children, around the world annually. On this World Malaria Day, such efforts by private citizens and businesses, not to mention by organizations around the world that have been pushing for decades to control and eliminate the disease, are to be applauded. But there's a lot of work to be done.

According to the World Health Organization, almost half of the planet's population is at risk of contracting the mosquito-borne disease. More than 247 million people were infected, and 881,000 died, in 2006. Sub-Saharan African bears the biggest burden. Last year, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon set the goal of eradicating the disease by 2010. At a World Malaria Day event in Washington yesterday, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called for the same goal, but by 2015.

Reducing the toll of a disease at such a scale requires funding, of course. It also requires vigilance. Bed nets, which cost only $10 each and last up to five years, are not effective if people don't sleep under them, and homes will continue to be havens for mosquitoes if people don't allow for additional spraying.

Malaria is such a concern in Nigeria that the health ministry has joined forces with Catholic and Muslim clergy to educate congregants about ways to protect themselves against malaria. This effort is vital. According to the WHO's 2006 report, Nigeria is home to a quarter of all malaria cases in Africa, with estimates ranging from 35 million to 80 million. The Nigerian health minister told us that 300,000 children under age 5 died from malaria in his country last year.

With focused and coordinated efforts by organizations, clergy and governments, the 2015 goal for malaria eradication could be reached. As Ms. Rice said yesterday after pointing out the world's success in eliminating smallpox, "It is time to band together to bring another unnecessary plague to its necessary end."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company