Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Small Critter, Big Killer

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, April 4 / 16

Zack Gross

I was inspired by the final Rick Mercer Report of the season, shown on CBC Television last week. Rick does an annual fundraising campaign called Spread the Net, which goes toward purchasing mosquito bed nets for families in developing countries to ward off bites that result in malaria. The main fundraising agents for this campaign are schools, colleges and universities across Canada.

This particular program highlighted the efforts of schools in Manitoba and Ontario, with lots of fun fundraising activities, heartfelt interviews and the usual noise and hi-jinx that Rick generates. Many organizations benefit from this type of promotion, including UNICEF, and of course, many people, victims or potential victims of malaria, do so as well. The disease affects 200 million people per year around the world, not only making people sick or killing them, but also affecting community economies as sufferers are unable to work.

An interesting graphic depiction that has been circulating on Facebook lately educates us on which are the deadliest animals on the planet. Of course, a lot of publicity focuses on sharks as the villain of the piece, but they only kill 10 people per year. Wolves do the same. Moving up the ladder, lions and elephants each take 100 lives every year. Hippos, nasty animals even if the look slow and fat, actually kill 500 people every year.

Then come crocodiles who inspire fear in all of us, killing 1000 people per year. At this point, many of the deadliest animals shrink in size, for example tapeworms who kill 2,000 and then roundworms who kill 2,500. Snails spread Schistosomiasis, killing 10,000 per year as do Tse Tse flies (sleeping sickness) and Assassin Bugs (Chagas disease).

Dogs with rabies account for 25,000 deaths per year and poisonous snakes claim 50,000 lives. Figures jump at this point, given that the next group is Humans!  Through violence, crime, wider conflicts, accidents at work and on the road and more, we account for on average 475,000 human deaths per year. And the final killer is the mosquito, ending the lives of 725,000 people!

On my various trips overseas, travel clinic practitioners have always recommended taking one anti-malarial or another. Some are more effective and others may have side-effects. The longer, it seems that you plan to be visiting a malarial location the better chances there are of getting quite sick. There are different strains of malaria, some less dangerous than others. A difference between “them” and “us” is that we can afford the pills and therefore can avoid or at least lessen the disease’s effect. For many people overseas, they have to live with it and often die from it, with little access to medical help.

My family and I were in a restaurant by Lake Victoria in Tanzania visiting friends whose projects we have supported through Brandon-Westman organizations. It was a warm and still evening, just perfect for mosquitoes to circle our ankles and bite at our necks. Here on the Prairies, mosquitoes are an annoyance, but really not a great danger to our health. There are fewer mosquitoes, it seems, in Africa but their negative impact is much greater.   

One hundred countries in the world have eradicated malaria but some regions still suffer greatly, for example Sub-Saharan Africa where 90% of cases are diagnosed. While numbers have been cut by almost 50% since the United Nations Millennium Development Goals were instituted in 2000, there is still much to do. The Gates Foundations, a big financial contributor to the fight, estimates that humanity needs 25 more years to overcome the disease.

As the world steps up measures such as pharmaceuticals and bed nets, mosquitoes find a way to become resistant to insecticides and drugs. Educating people and providing nets means that almost 50% of Africans use nets now as opposed to just 3% at the turn of the century. Governments and charities from wealthy countries now contribute over 80% of the $2.7 billion spent on fighting malaria.

Methods include developing new drugs and blanket treating regional populations. If everyone gets the shot, it is more effective than if it is piecemeal. Affecting the ability of the insects to transmit malaria is also being practiced. Better data gathering, such as using maps to track the disease and predict “hot spots” is being used. Greater political will in affected countries is also necessary, to spend the necessary resources and integrate the fight against malaria into national health strategies.

The next 25 years will feature strong spending, public education and innovative research to finish the job of ending the malarial scourge. Watching young people contribute to that cause via initiatives such as Rick Mercer’s Spread the Net Challenge gives one hope!

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s
The Marquis Project.

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