Two months ago, our government announced a groundbreaking commitment to end malaria in India by 2030. Like the famed effort to eradicate polio, ending malaria will require unprecedented determination, creativity and commitment across every level of government and society. So, I was encouraged to learn of the government’s promise to collaborate with the education sector on malaria prevention programs.
Children suffer from malaria more than anyone. Especially young children, whose underdeveloped immune systems are vulnerable to the disease. In fact, most of the one million cases of malaria in India last year were children. To make matters worse, malaria doesn’t receive enough attention from governments and communities, partly because the strain of malaria common to India is less deadly than the strain that kills hundreds of thousands of children in Africa each year.
But, failing to prioritise malaria is a mistake.
The disease has long-lasting cognitive consequences that result in poor performance in school and follow children into adulthood. Children who miss school due to illness risk falling behind their peers and lose out on important social interactions that shape the people they will become.
Malaria also creates a huge financial burden for parents, who struggle to meet the costs of treatment when their children fall ill. All of these factors can create a downward spiral that traps families in poverty.
Thankfully, a little education can go a long way towards protecting our children from malaria.
Knowledge is a powerful way to drive behaviour change that prevents the spread of malaria. We know that simple, cost-effective interventions like insecticide-treated bed nets and indoor residual spraying protect children from mosquitoes, and that highly effective medicines can quickly cure the disease.
When people fully understand the risks of malaria and how to prevent it, they are more likely to seek care and sustain lifestyle changes that lead to better health outcomes.
And what better place to start educating children about malaria than in schools? Educators understand effective teaching techniques – like music education or community art – that can help children retain important information and stay engaged in what they are learning. These techniques can be applied outside the classroom to community malaria programs, which can use creative education tactics to teach children crucial prevention lessons.
We’re beginning to see these strategies in the malaria field. Several programs use arts to teach families about proper bed net use and treatment. One study showed that integrating malaria information into Kalajatha, a traditional form of folk theatre, conveyed important messages about malaria control and prevention to the rural communities in southern India.
When I worked for UNICEF in Koraput, Orissa, I even saw children themselves using these innovative approaches to teach others what they know about malaria.
But, moving India’s national framework from rhetoric to reality will require strong political commitment and financial resources from our government. And these investments must place children at the forefront. Specific resources need to be set aside for the creation of malaria interventions designed for children and surveillance systems must track whether programs are reaching them.
When our leaders deliver on their promises, it’s up to the rest of us – teachers, neighbors and parents – to keep our children healthy by educating them about malaria. By doing so, we will be investing in the next generation and empowering them to take their health into their own hands. As an educator, I am ready to do my part.
I have seen my students achieve amazing things when they receive the right tools and support. Part of that support means making sure children are physically healthy when they come to school. Let’s build a future where every child has the chance to walk into the classroom healthy, smiling and ready to learn.
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