Until a few weeks ago the thought of getting malaria had never crossed my mind as I'm fortunate to live in a US city where malaria is not a problem. Even when I travel to tropical areas like my parents' home country of Panama where mosquitoes eat me alive, I'm not worried as malaria is no longer present in that part of the country. This is a stark contrast to my recent trip with Malaria No More UK to Ghana, West Africa, where malaria affects the entire population of 24 million people and is a leading cause of death amongst young children. The charity has released a short film today about my trip - I went to learn as much as I could about malaria and the work happening to make sure every home in the country has a mosquito net by the end of this year.
During my trip I experienced and saw a lot. What I didn't know before now is that malaria doesn't come from mosquitoes, it is only transmitted by them when they bite. So a large part of the fight against the disease is education and awareness so folks know how to prevent, quickly diagnose and treat malaria. Sleeping under a mosquito net is one simple way to do this as it stops malaria carrying mosquitoes biting during their favourite feeding time, at night.
Thanks to support from Ghanaian and international organisations like Malaria No More UK, mosquito nets are being distributed across the country. I learnt that the nets are treated with an insecticide that kills mosquitoes on contact. The latest news is that enough nets have now been distributed to help protect up to 10 million people, that's over 40% of Ghana's population - an incredible achievement.
I saw how malaria impacts people's everyday lives and how one community is fighting the disease. We drove to a rural village near Ejura in Ghana's most populous Ashanti Region, home to around four thousand people. Soon after our arrival, the wind picked up and magnificent cloud formations brought in a quick and heavy thunderstorm. Despite all my malaria pill precautions, I was extremely worried about the rain and began to imagine swarms of mosquitoes coming to attack us and infect me with malaria. It was here I met Rashida, a quietly spoken girl in her early twenties who hopes to become a teacher and who had been volunteering to deliver free mosquito nets and malaria education to everyone in this community. Rashida told me how her mother used to suffer terribly from malaria and now Rashida wants to do all she can to protect others from a similar ordeal. She is also six months pregnant so particularly vulnerable to severe malaria and I sensed her relief as she can now sleep safely under a mosquito net.
We went on to visit a hospital and I saw how proper diagnosis and treatment for malaria is critical when you are sick. The hospital staff told me about a quick test kit they are using to diagnose malaria infections - taking and testing a drop of blood in just a few minutes rather than the hour it can take using a microscope. As the hospital has over 200 walk in patients every day, anything that can speed up the process must be good news for patients and staff.
On the second day I visited a primary school and asked a classroom full of adolescents: Who in the room has been affected by malaria? Every single child raised their hand, they all live with the daily threat of catching this debilitating illness which claims the life of a child every minute. The good news is that they all sleep protected under nets now and know much more about how to prevent malaria from spreading. They shared with me how they reduce the number of breeding places available to mosquitoes and said that proper disposal of litter is very important, especially plastic bags from the market that end up on the street and collect rainwater where mosquitoes love to breed.
In the classroom we sang together I Need A Dollar, the song I wrote back in 2005. I was inspired by the songs of chain gang workers recounting their hardship and problems. The lyrics were also drawn from personal experiences, mixed with friend's experiences and what I saw happening in the US and the economic crisis. Singing in that classroom, the song took on a poignant new meaning as $1 is close to the daily budget of 1.4 billion of the world's poorest people who have little more than this to survive on for everything; food, water, transport, education, housing and healthcare. So they really can't afford to catch malaria. That's why Malaria No More UK is involved in a campaign to fight poverty called Live Below the Line. It's a charity challenge which invites people to get sponsored to live on £1 a day for five days for all food and drink from 7-11 May. It's a real opportunity to engage with issues of poverty and raise funds to help save lives from malaria and fight poverty in Africa.
I was heartened to hear that deaths in Africa have been reduced by one third in the last decade and think that World Malaria Day on 25 April is a moment to reflect on this historic progress. It's also an opportunity for us to unite behind charities like Malaria No More UK who are working tirelessly to see an end to malaria deaths once and for all. With a little help from everyone I really hope and believe there will be a day coming soon where no child dies from malaria.