‘Pregnant with malaria’: Mother experiences need for Imagine No Malaria
She named her son “Jacob,” because as in the Old Testament story, the Rev. Jennifer Long felt she and her infant had wrestled with God.
The struggle came in 2005, when four months pregnant with her fourth child, Long, of O'Fallon, Missouri, made her second trip to the emergency room. She had a fever about to hit 104 degrees and no clue about why she was so sick.
“I had just mentioned to the doctor that I had been in Central America on a mission trip about nine months prior, and it was like a light bulb went off in the doctor’s eyes,” she said in a video produced for Morning Star Church, a United Methodist congregation in O'Fallon.
When the doctor asked if she had been bitten by mosquitoes, “I knew instantly that I was lying there in a hospital in the middle of the United States of America, pregnant with malaria.”
After a week in the hospital with excellent medical staff and easily accessed medication, Jennifer went on to have a healthy full-term baby, while determined to learn as much as possible about malaria. “It was absolutely staggering,” she said of the curable disease devastating half the world.
Cradling Jacob the day he was born, she realized the disparities of the disease’s death rates.
“I couldn’t help but think of the 3,000 mothers who were holding their babies that day, as (the infants) were dying of malaria, simply because they lived on the other side of the ocean,” she said.
When the malaria parasite enters the bloodstream, it multiplies. It passes through red blood cells from mother to child during pregnancy.
The symptoms are horrific – high fevers, convulsions, anemia, vomiting and even comas. However, the complications can be worse. Survivors may experience respiratory, kidney or liver failure, internal bleeding, brain infections and more.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 300 million to 500 million people contract the disease annually.
Since 2008, The United Methodist Church’s Imagine No Malaria campaign has been at the forefront in eradicating this disease across sub-Saharan Africa. According to the denomination’s website, death tolls in the region plummeted to 627,000 in 2012 from 1 million five years earlier.
The progress comes from a simple formula: insecticide-treated bed nets, communications, improved health facilities and education. With church-sponsored training and global partners, 11,600 community health workers have gone door-to-door dispensing information, answering questions, distributing nets and helping install the simple tool that is instrumental in the malaria battle. Delivering more than 2.3 million bed nets has had the biggest impact in confronting the disease, as it protects people sleeping when mosquitoes are most active.
The campaign also estimates that 4.6 million people have learned about the disease and its prevention via new radio stations and distribution of radios. The medium helps spread the message about things like draining standing water and improved sanitation, which can be mosquito breeding grounds. Meanwhile, diagnostic and treatment tools supplied by the church enable more than 300 United Methodist hospitals and clinics proactively to prevent, recognize and treat the disease.
No one does the work in a vacuum. To wipe out the disease, general agencies, denominational health partners, congregations and African churches have joined with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The United Nations Foundation/Nothing but Nets and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
‘We can do something mighty’
Advocates like Jennifer have made the difference with their passion and commitment to the Imagine No Malaria cause.
In the Missouri Annual (regional) Conference, cookbook writer Amy Hout donated 20 percent of her sales to the campaign. Her healthy recipes target busy families. A conference website video teaches children how to make “netting corsages,” symbolic of bed nets as a malaria prevention tool.
The Alabama-West Florida Conference had its own monetary campaign goal this summer, raising more than $600,000 so far. Children gave from their piggy banks and opened lemonade stands. People took up Lenten fasts that included things that would normally cost $10 – routine coffee stops, meals and so forth – and donated the money they would have spent. Teenagers sponsored hoop shoots, where people pledged cash for each basketball free throw the kids made.
In an Easter message, Bishop Paul L. Leland made connections between church members and people half a world away.
“It is not difficult to find members of our congregations who can still remember when malaria was a serious threat in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s,” he said. “We eliminated malaria here, and we can do something mighty in our world by eliminating malaria elsewhere.”
Support from congregations and annual conferences has gathered momentum, and Imagine No Malaria has raised more than $63 million in cash and pledges toward a $75 million goal.
The campaign lasts until 2016, but when Jacob, the boy from Missouri, grows old enough to understand, his mother likely will tell him about the disease that threatened his life and how the church helped reduce death and suffering for children an ocean away.
Martini, a freelance writer who resides in Glen Mills, Pa., is the former communications director for the Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.