Opinion: Civil society — a force for change in fight against malaria

A house visit in Senegal, organized by Zero Malaria Starts with Me, a community-based movement to increase community awareness and ownership of anti-malaria interventions. Photo by: Zero Malaria Starts with Me

Despite incredible progress over the last decade that has saved over 7 million lives from malaria, the disease remains one of the world’s largest health problems — with nearly half of the global population at risk. With 445,000 deaths per year — and 91% of all these cases concentrated in Africa — the impact of this disease is immense and ever-present. As new illnesses such as COVID-19 emerge, we must not forget to maintain our momentum against malaria, one of the world’s oldest and deadliest diseases.

Indeed, as a Cameroonian, I have long been familiar with malaria and its devastating impact on families and communities. Growing up, malaria was a ubiquitous threat, with friends, family and even me suffering because of the tiny yet deadly mosquito. While I was very lucky to survive several times, I have seen the impact that malaria has on communities and its citizens firsthand. Not only do people suffer from the physical symptoms, but the common disease also limits children’s ability to go to school and prevents families from making a living, disabling communities’ ability to prosper and thrive. As long as malaria continues to advance in Africa, the continent will be held back from reaching its true potential.

How is COVID-19 affecting malaria programs?

Aid organizations are exploring ways to maintain essential anti-malaria programs while keeping health workers safe from COVID-19.

When it comes to malaria elimination, civil society organizations and communities really do matter. It is people on the ground, those who suffer with the reality of this disease every day, who hold the power to change the fight against malaria for good. Of course, political commitments and holding leaders accountable to step up funding are critical to continue our mission, but we have learned that top-down government investment is not enough.

We’ve seen time and time again that malaria programs and initiatives are more effective when working with local communities upwards. Understanding behavioral change, religious contexts, and individuals’ relationship with this disease is vital, too — and it is those living and working in these local communities who can best advocate for them.

From joining national and local health committees, increasing communications on malaria prevention methods, and advocating for increased domestic funding, there are many ways that civil society organizations can join the fight against malaria and create real change for the benefit of their communities.

A year ago, I stood beside my colleagues and activists to launch the Civil Society for Malaria Elimination, or CS4ME, at the official World Malaria Day celebrations. As the first global network of civil society organizations committed to achieve malaria elimination, CS4ME aims to unite such organizations and communities affected by malaria and strengthen their capacities to increase advocacy for more effective and fully funded, people-centered malaria programs.

Through the CS4ME network, civil society organizations have joined forces to develop letters and declarations for leaders and organized campaigns and meetings with high-level officials across the continent to demand accountability.

One of the most powerful examples of civil society’s impact is Zero Malaria Starts With Me, a campaign launched in 2014 by Senegalese communications and advocacy organization Speak Up Africa. The initiative empowers local citizens to take the fight against malaria into their own hands, contributing to a national decrease in malaria cases of nearly 20% from 2015 to 2017.

Inspired by the results achieved in Senegal, the RBM Partnership to End Malaria and the African Union joined forces in 2018 to roll out the initiative across the continent. Since then, the Pan-African movement has gained traction, with 14 countries now launching their own country-level initiatives, raising awareness among thousands of Africans across the continent.

Progress also includes domestic resource mobilization. At the sixth Global Fund replenishment conference in October 2019, Africa doubled its contribution for the first time in history, getting us one step closer to malaria elimination.

At a time when the world has the resources, tools, and desire to prevent and treat malaria, no longer can we allow vulnerable people to be affected by this entirely treatable and preventable disease.

Ahead of World Malaria Day, and in the context of COVID-19, we know malaria will strike harder. So not only are we calling for the full protection of community health workers and health care personnel against this virus, but we are calling for greater investment in health systems and community systems, the continuity of malaria services, accountability, and political will and action — but also that civil society organizations use their voices to demand change and join CS4ME.

Together, we are a powerful agent of change. Together, we can end malaria for good.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Olivia Ngou

    Olivia Ngou is founder and executive director of Impact Santé Afrique, global coordinator of the Civil Society for Malaria Elimination, and recipient of the 2019 REACH Award for her work in the fight against malaria.