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Of Moses, Me, and Malaria

It is a Thursday night and I am seated in my dorm room ferociously scribbling down things on my to-do list. I just finished watching a poignant documentary, “Mary and Martha,” which chronicles the lives of two women who lose their sons to malaria while traveling in parts of Africa. For a moment, I can vividly see the faces of the many malaria victims streaming with sweat due to a rise in body temperature that is a near-sure diagnostic sign for many people in this part of the world. “Dominic,” a voice in the back of my mind tells me, “those suffering young boys could have been you.” The voice is right.

About 12 years ago, I was lying on a hospital bed somewhere in western Uganda slowly recovering from yet another recurring bout of malaria. I was missing out on my second semester of third grade, and that meant not only falling behind in schoolwork but also losing the chance to laugh and play with my school friends. I, like millions more elsewhere in the world, was a young boy with dreams and aspirations. The difference was that I lived under constant uncertainty: I wondered whether I would come to achieve any of these dreams if I kept getting malaria.

Somehow, I survived, and today here I am, writing this piece. But what about my friend and classmate whom I will call Moses, who died of malaria during fifth-grade vacation? If I tell you Moses’s story and you multiply it time after time after time, you will gain some understanding about the impact that this curable disease has on public health and economies worldwide.

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Moses was my best friend during fifth grade. He was a young and cheerful boy—perhaps a little too thoughtful for his age. Moses, though initially in the same year as my older brother, had become a member of my class after malaria left him unable to complete his end-of-the-year exams for the previous semester. Nevertheless, Moses was always optimistic and joyful. He seemed to particularly enjoy having conversations about his aspirations.

At times, though, Moses’s good cheer broke down. I remember one moment of our friendship with particular clarity: when Moses told me he feared he might not live to graduate from elementary school, as his health was continuously complicated by malaria. Indeed, that same year when we broke off for our midyear break, I learned that Moses had succumbed to a terrible fever. Whenever I think about his life and then mine, I shudder at the realization that just what happened to Moses could have happened to me. However, I feel more disturbed when I realize that Moses’s continues to be the fate for so many innocent children in many parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

According to data published by the World Health Organization, malaria killed an estimated 482,000 children under five in 2012. This is equivalent to more than 1,300 children per day or nearly one child every minute. This problem along with many similar others usually results from a combination of both nature and economics. However, the extent to which people in most of the West are incognizant of such issues is a problem on its own. Even at institutions like Harvard, which pride themselves on the curiosity and worldliness of their students, many people ignore this problem. Perhaps this is because a lot of us do not have direct experiences with malaria, for instance. But we are all indirectly affected by what happens everywhere else in the world. When young people in poorer countries die of curable diseases like malaria, the global economy and the overall fitness of the human family both suffer.

The good news is that global malaria awareness is starting to improve. Harvard itself has started various initiatives, like “Defeating Malaria: From the Genes to the Globe” and the two student-run campaigns it sponsors, aimed at improving awareness and also finding innovative treatment and prevention methods. The “Mob Malaria” team is organizing a malaria flash mob at the Science Center Plaza while other students have organized a community-wide run to harness the unity and reach of the Harvard community in the fight against malaria. Both of these are small wins for the global campaign against malaria, but there is more work to be done. So today, on World Malaria Day, think of Moses and the children like him across the world, and think also of how you can help.

Dominic Akandwanaho ’16 is a neurobiology concentrator in Currier House.

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