On a stifling hot March evening in Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city, I joined Peace Corps volunteers David Kalpakchian and Hannah Braun and Ghanaian volunteers to hand out and hang up insecticide-treated nets (ITN). We know that insecticide-treated nets are a highly effective way to protect people from malaria infection. Because of this, Ghana is working to achieve "universal" coverage, meaning one ITN is available for every two people. This effort is important to the kayayei and other groups whose socioeconomic and transient status make them much less likely to have access to ITNs.
Malaria does not threaten boys and girls in the United States, but in Ghana and across Africa, the lives of could-be future presidents, scientists and nurses are lost prematurely, and their hope for making an impact on the world is greatly diminished. In Ghana, where malaria is a leading cause of mortality, 1 in 12 children does not reach his fifth birthday. No child should have to fear death from a mosquito bite.
As we slipped down the cramped side streets and alleys of Kumasi, I recalled being sick with fever as a kid in Da Lat in the south-central highlands of Vietnam where my parents were missionaries. I consider myself lucky to have slept under the protection of a bed net and to have had access to medicine when I fell ill with malaria.
We came upon a small one-room home with plastic bags covering windows to prevent mosquitoes from entering. Inside we found 12 kayayei women sharing a hot and crowded space. Kayayei are low-wage workers who carry food, hardware and other items on their heads. These young women left their homes in the north in search of better economic opportunity. But without skills, homes or family in the city, many struggle to survive and resort to sleeping on the street in makeshift structures.
When we finished hanging nets over sleeping spaces, the women laughed, cheered and danced in celebration, grateful for our small gesture and comforted by the cooling breeze that came into their room once they removed the plastic from the windows.
Distributing nets with David and Hannah, who live and work side-by-side with local populations, reminded me that America is a force for good in the world. From the Peace Corps and faith- and community-based groups to the men and women in our military and USAID and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff, Americans are finding local solutions to complex problems, and improving millions of lives in the process.
Development programs, like those that work to prevent malaria, are a moral, strategic and economic imperative for the United States. The sustained bipartisan support for global health in the U.S. Congress over two administrations is a testament to the fact that we have been able to demonstrate an incredible return on investment for every dollar spent on saving lives and improving opportunity.
The health of a nation, especially the health of its children, is the foundation upon which economies are able to grow, and markets for U.S. products are strengthened.
Malaria interventions continue to be one of the best investments in global health, and it is vitally important that we sustain our momentum in support of a virtuous cycle. Children free of malaria are healthier. Healthy children decrease family size. A smaller family does not have to spread already scarce resources as thin.
Thus, these children receive better nutrition, better education and better opportunities. When those children grow up, they pass the benefits on to the next generation. Fighting malaria starts with ensuring every child sees his or her fifth birthday and nurturing this virtuous cycle.
Editor's Note: This entry first appeared on the TheHill.com.