‘Leading the Frontline Efforts’

Professor Dyann Wirth of the Harvard Malaria Initiative listens to Bishop David Njovu of Zambia. | Photo courtesy of Justin Knight, Harvard Divinity School

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

Malaria death rates have plunged nearly 30 percent since 2010. When medical leaders gathered at Harvard University on Oct. 4, they focused on what has become the stealth factor: the Anglican churches in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ground zero in the fight against malaria is a remote border region where health clinics are scarce. Malaria nets for sleeping, insecticides for indoor spaces, and advancements in drug therapies can all be highly effective, but only if a distribution system equips villagers to use them properly.

Anglican dioceses in Angola, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have leveraged their institutional presence and trusted status in rural communities. They have mobilized hundreds of congregations to educate their neighbors and offer defense techniques that can determine whether malaria remains a killer or gets wiped out.

“The faith community is leading the frontline efforts,” said infectious disease expert Dyann Wirth, head of the Defeating Malaria Initiative at Harvard. She introduced a Harvard Divinity School panel with three Anglican bishops, who talked about the malaria outreach of their dioceses in Africa.

“I’m an expert in the science. You’re an expert in community mobilization,” Wirth said to Bishop David Njovu of the Diocese of Lusaka, Zambia, during the panel. “It’s exciting to think eliminating malaria is bringing communities together.”

Anti-malaria partnerships involving foundations, governments, and faith communities have been far more successful than experts predicted they would be 20 years ago. Malaria deaths declined from 778,000 in 2003 to 445,000 in 2016, according to the World Health Organization. Malaria still afflicted 214 million people in 2015, but that marked an 18 percent drop from 2000. About 90 percent of malaria cases and deaths now occur in Africa; 70 percent of deaths occur in children younger than five.

But the global death toll from malaria barely budged from 2015 to 2016. Experts now warn progress might have plateaued and runs a risk of reversal. Funders of the outreach warn that malaria-affected regions need to eliminate the disease, just as 35 countries have done since 1955, or brace for a resurgence.

“You can’t just reduce it, because if you do, it will return with a fuller force,” said J. Christopher Flowers, a member of Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City and president of the J.C. Flowers Foundation, which has worked with Anglican churches on anti-malaria projects in Africa since 2004. “This is due to increasing resistance to malaria treatment and to insecticide. And here we have science and faith standing shoulder to shoulder in the anti-malaria enterprise.”

Determined not to lose ground in the malaria fight, a delegation of Anglican bishops visited the United States and the United Kingdom in October. Among their goals: raise awareness of their work and increase government support for the Global Fund, an international public-private partnership that seeks to end the epidemics of malaria, AIDS, and tuberculosis.

The tour included meetings with senators in Washington, D.C., where they lobbied for a larger commitment to the Global Fund in a new triennium that begins in 2019. After the visit, 18 senators signed a letter of support. The United States is the largest Global Fund contributor at $1.35 billion for 2018. But bishops worry the Trump administration might cut support at a pivotal moment in the malaria fight.

“The background is all the cuts in foreign aid that the current government is advocating,” Bishop Njovu told TLC after the panel. “And the U.S. is the major donor to Global Fund. So if the U.S. cuts, that means there will be very little coming from the other nations that are putting the money in that basket.”

At Harvard, bishops explained how their congregations have been uniquely positioned to help expand Africa’s malaria-free zones. Bishop Luke Pato of the Diocese of Namibia and Bishop André Soares of the Diocese of Angola told how they are making progress.

“In my country, the main cause of death until now is malaria,” Soares told the audience. “The church has the privilege to be with the people in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer on Sundays. So my government has called the church its social partner, because the church is very involved in education and health.”

To deliver on that mission, congregations divide the labor. Priests are involved in teaching how malaria is transmitted and dispelling superstitions, such as the common belief that it is caused by a witch’s hex. Church members are trained by health clinics in administering tests and dispensing medication. Churches are constantly reminding villagers to be tested quickly when symptoms surface and to take entire three-day doses of anti-malaria medication, rather than save a portion for the next outbreak.

The malaria topic hit close to home during the panel discussion. The Rev. Laurien Nyribakwe, a Jesuit priest from Rwanda and graduate student at Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, recalled how his bout with malaria required him to drop out of school in Africa for two weeks. His condition forced him to suspend services at the school chapel because he was not well enough to preach.

He said the church plays a crucial role in dispelling common fears that malaria nets might cause infertility. The church can also be instrumental in rebutting messages from traditional healers who discourage Western interventions.

“When people are neglecting using the nets, that is dangerous,” Nyribakwe said. “When a priest or pastor is teaching, people understand him much better than tradition. If you take a stand and teach people, malaria can be addressed.”

At this point, Anglican dioceses have become the region’s leaders in the anti-malaria campaign. They are leveraging more than a decade of experience to train volunteers from other denominations. Much as Roman Catholics took a leading role in confronting Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, Anglicans are championing the malaria cause with an urgency that has intensified over time.

“We’re only halfway across the river,” Flowers said. “And with this river, you either get all the way across or you drown.”


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