October 5, 2007

Students 'Cover Africa' To Help Fight Malaria

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With classes, social interactions, future goals and constant deadlines, the Cornell world may seem overwhelming enough — but consider this chilling fact: One child dies of malaria every 30 seconds in Africa.
When Babette Stern ’09 and Shoshana Aleinikoff ’08 attended Americans for Informed Democracy’s two-day “Malaria Bootcamp” last January, they felt empowered upon learning that the devastating disease is preventable. They joined with Sarah Mongiello ’09 and Zeke Rediker ’09 to create Cover Africa — a non-profit organization to literally cover Africa with mosquito bed-nets.
Although 1 million people die each year from malaria in Africa alone, a recent poll by the World Health Organization revealed that only 28 percent of Americans realize the disease is a serious health problem. Because their immune systems are less resistant, children under five and pregnant women make up 75 percent of the deaths.
Cover Africa has been raising money and awareness on the Cornell campus for the past several months, and over winter break 10 students will travel to the village of Himjibre, Ghana, where they will distribute nets and conduct empirical research on the nets’ effectiveness.
To better understand the needs of the community, Aleinikoff spent six weeks in Himjibre this summer to set up and to test the program with Cover Africa’s partner organization, the Ghana Health Education Initiative.
“We went to the district hospital, and the head of every ward there said that malaria was the problem they saw the most, by far,” Aleinikoff said.
Babette Stern, who participated in another health program in Ghana this summer, emphasized, “Going and seeing it yourself is probably the only way to understand it. The people do not have a lack of initiative — it is a lack of infrastructure.”
She vividly remembered the awe and the frustration she had experienced in the far-off continent.
“When we went to this village to do eye-screenings, on our way there we drove through pieces of grass taller than our car, and at the top of a hill all around us were neon-colored plants. It rained while we were there, and when we left water was up to the windows of our van. We packed our van with patients and other villagers who needed transportation — so obviously, it is really hard for people to leave,” Stern said.
Cover Africa has also begun a flood campaign, which Rediker began after a recent devastating flood in 20 African countries.
“There was almost no media coverage of the flooding, and it is a serious human crisis. The flooding is also linked to malaria,” Rediker said.
Rediker explained that malaria is not an isolated problem, rather it is a disease of poverty.
“Malaria would not exist without deep-seeded cycles of poverty. We provide bandages for the people, but we’re not stopping the war,” Rediker said.
Rediker’s interest in Africa began in 8th grade, when he visited townships in Cape Town, South Africa. When he came home to Pittsburgh, he began to awaken to the similarities between American inner cities and what he had seen in Africa.
“I really believe, though, that just because things are closer to home doesn’t mean they are more pressing; plus, the severity is obviously much worse in Africa,” Rediker said.
The experiences that Aleinikoff, Stern and Rediker have had in Africa have compelled them to pursue careers in development and global health.
“For the students who go on this trip, they will be the voices of the people you wouldn’t usually hear from,” Aleinikoff said.
In preparation for the trip, students attend a class once a week with lectures by experts in health, entomology, history and culture. In the first class this Wednesday, Joseph Ashong, a Ph.D. student in international nutrition spoke about life and traditions in Ghana. Ashong, who is Ghanaian himself, came to the United States for the first time in August, where he adeptly adjusted to the extreme cultural differences.
“Here everything is so fast-paced; it is like everybody is running, and everybody is to each himself alone — but I was ready for it,” Ashong said.
After his education at Cornell, he plans to return to Ghana on maternal and child nutrition in the context of malaria and HIV.
“Malaria is everywhere in Ghana. I think that if the students from Cornell see what’s really on the ground, it will give them motivation to do more; so I think that it’s good for them to go there. Why not?” Ashong said.