A killer arrives at our doorstep

September 19, 2002|By Dale Hanson Bourke

MALARIA. WHAT in the world is it doing in our area?

And how worried should we be?

Two teen-age residents of Loudoun County, Va., contracted the disease last month, a rarity because neither had traveled abroad.

I am neither a doctor nor a health care worker, but I know enough to be scared. My perspective is one of a mother who has traveled regularly to malaria-infested regions and watched women bury their children.

Every 30 seconds a child dies of malaria. Malaria is a killer, one of the worst in the world, especially of children under the age of 5. The United Nations estimates as many as 1 million children die each year from the infected bite of a mosquito; thousands more are left with permanent neurological damage.

Most of the cases reported occur in Africa. The two cases of malaria reported in our area are among at least 300 million more incidents this year. These two, however, will get more attention than all the others combined because malaria rarely surfaces in a developed country.

The cases that do occur here will be treated relatively easily. Other than the annoyance of a headache and flu-like symptoms, the victims of malaria will probably suffer little. Some may experience anemia if they don't take iron pills, since the virus attacks red blood cells.

All of these surmountable problems are insurmountable in places where no pharmacy exists to dispense iron pills or the antibiotics that could arrest the disease before it claimed a life. Even the mosquito nets and insecticides that would prevent bites in the first place are either unavailable or prohibitively expensive in places where malaria-carrying mosquitoes regularly swarm.

The recent news of malaria hitting near home makes me check the screens on our windows and keep the can of insect repellent near the door where my family will remember to use it. I'll watch for symptoms and run to the family physician at the first sign of trouble.

I will do my job as a mother, and my family will be fine. But I can't help thinking of the mothers I have met around the world who were being the best mothers they could be yet lost children to malaria. They weren't lazy or neglectful or ignorant. They were just poor and living in a part of the world where a case of malaria would never make the headlines.

Dale Hanson Bourke is senior vice president of World Relief in Baltimore. The mother of two sons, she lives in Chevy Chase.

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