Tanzania, November 2002. I have just attended Africa’s largest-ever malaria conference. Now my TV professional husband is capturing stories of real-life sufferers.
Escorted by a tall, Masai herdsman with handsome features, we enter a home built of grass and cow dung. Inside, the air is dark and dense with the smell of animals, smoke and roasted meat.
The man’s wife, wearing a traditional beaded collar, still cannot speak of the first-born son they lost to malaria. On the other hand, she and her husband can’t say enough about the modern anti-malarial drugs that – months earlier – saved their second child from the brink of death. A smiling boy of 2, he is the light of their lives.
After our video interview is over, the boys’ parents accept an insecticide-treated bednet as a parting gift. They vow their precious youngster will sleep under it every night.
Wait! What’s wrong with this picture?
From the standpoint of malaria, absolutely nothing. One hundred years ago, the mosquito-borne scourge claimed two to three million lives a year. Ten years ago, its yearly toll was roughly one million, mainly African children. Today, thanks to stepped-up efforts and international aid, global malaria deaths continue to fall.
At the same time, however, other threats to global child survival are finally getting their rightful due.
Did you know, for example, that 3 billion people – nearly half the world’s population – still rely on wood, coal, crop waste or animal dung for indoor cooking and heating? The resulting indoor air pollution contributes mightily to severe pneumonia, especially among women and young children.
At 1.6 million deaths per year, garden-variety pneumonia is now the leading killer of children under 5 worldwide – more than AIDS, malaria and TB combined.
According to new data published in the journal NeuroToxicology, pre-natal exposure to carbon monoxide generated by indoor smoke can also have long-term effects on child IQ.
The good news is this. Something as simple as an indoor stove with a smoke-reducing chimney can change this ugly picture. According to a study performed by UC Berkeley researchers and published in the November 10 issue of Lancet, cases of severe pneumonia in Guatemalan youngsters whose homes had vented cookstoves were a third lower than cases in indoor smoke-exposed counterparts.
In recognition of November’s World Pneumonia Day, the United Nations Foundation chose to highlight a new public-private partnership, The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which aims to see clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels in 100 million previously-unequipped households by the year 2020.
The Alliance’s Global Ambassador is Academy Award- winning actress Julia Roberts. Her 2011 statement? “Cooking shouldn’t kill, but the sad reality is that it does, and a disproportionate (number) of victims are children at the household hearth with their mother as she cooks.
“I believe this is a particularly cruel injustice. But it is one that can be stopped.”
As we wind down our holiday weekends, let’s not forget some of the blessings and health dividends we barely realize – much less give thanks for – and the daily threats still facing many children and families around the world.