Putting malaria to sleep, for good

[Image] A Namibian family with their new bed net.
(Image: Malaria No More)

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Emily van Rijswijck

Every night at 9pm, in certain African communities, the NightWatch communications campaign reminds people, via radio, television and text messages, to get under their mosquito nets as part of the the fight against malaria.

It’s a simple idea, yet one which is starting to bear fruit on a continent where about 81% of the world’s malaria incidences and 95% of all malaria deaths occur, according to the World Health Organisation.

The disease, which is preventable and curable, affects the lives of almost half of the world’s population, with pregnant women and children under five most at risk.

The 30-second NightWatch message is broadcast with the help of various corporate partners.

Adding their voices

In one of the messages, the familiar, soothing voice of Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour asks: “It’s 9pm. Are you and your family safe under your mosquito nets tonight?”

In other voice clips and visuals, well-known personalities such as Akon, R Kelly and soccer legend Alexandre Song are featured, adding weight to the life-saving importance of using mosquito nets.

More than 20 top musicians, community leaders and athletes have so far participated in the programme, which aims to tackle the pandemic head on with simple, yet pithy messages.

An initiative of Malaria No More and South Africa’s Lalela Project, it was launched in Senegal in 2010 but has since rolled out in Chad, Tanzania and Cameroon.

On a continent where a child still dies from the disease every 45 seconds, NightWatch hopes to act as a consistent reminder to take action.

The goal of the programme is to increase mosquito net usage, minimise the incidence of malaria and thereby bring down malaria deaths in Africa.

Malaria No More aims to put a stop to all malaria deaths by 2015.

The main thing is to change people’s mindsets and convince them to use the bed nets, says Richard Bona, Cameroonian musician. It is estimated that about 50% of households in sub-Saharan Africa now have at least one bed net.

Since its inception in 2010, NightWatch has reached more than nine-million people.

In August 2011 NightWatch-Cameroon was launched, along with a campaign which saw 8.6-million bed nets distributed throughout the country. It is Cameroon’s first-ever universal mosquito net campaign in partnership with various large corporations.

One of these, ExxonMobil Corporation, is also sponsoring the Nightwatch-Cameroon broadcast.

International recognition

Last year the NightWatch programme was recognised by the World Petroleum Council as the most outstanding project and innovation in the oil and gas sector in the Social Responsibility category. ExxonMobil received the award, which is only given every three years, at the 20th World Petroleum Congress in Doha, Qatar, on 5 December 2011.

Considered to be one of the most prestigious in the petroleum sector, the award recognises private and public companies and institutions for outstanding projects or innovations. The organisation received over 100 submissions vying for recognition.

Suzanne McCarron, president of the ExxonMobil Foundation, said the programme serves as a healthy reminder every night to millions of Africans that malaria is a preventable and treatable disease.

The company has channelled more than $100-million (R776-million) into the global fight since 2000.

Elsewhere on the continent

A number of other organisations and individuals are taking the malaria epidemic on.

Africa’s leading telecommunications provider MTN, has also entered the fray, targeting five-million of its subscribers with regular bed net reminders via a text message system.

And in Ghana, confectionary giant Hershey’s is using its cocoa link mobile phone network to reach cocoa farmers in the country. Some 2 500 farmers receive regular malaria prevention messages warning them of the dangers of the disease and the related decrease in productivity which results from the illness.

In Cameroon the Muna Foundation, working with several renowned African artists and Malaria No More, created a catchy anthem under the K.O. PALU (knock out malaria) campaign. The song is sung in a mix of English, French and ethnic dialects, urging urge locals to fight the disease by taking their medication, going to the hospital and sleeping under the treated mosquito nets.

Since the beginning of 2011 more than 16-million Cameroonians have received the encouraging message.

K.O.PALU started in August 2011 and aims to increase public awareness against malaria, especially through the distribution of impregnated bed-nets, a strategy with which South Africa’s own adventurer-explorer Kingsley Holgate has become synonymous.

Holgate and his family have traversed the continent in their trusty Land-Rovers, handing out impregnated nets to hundreds of families. He is a staunch activist of the global United Against Malaria campaign.