With winter just around the corner, some lucky Australians will soon be jetting off to warmer destinations such as Thailand, Indonesia and Vanuatu. While these overseas getaways may be relatively inexpensive, not taking medical precautions against diseases such as malaria could make even the healthiest amongst us pay a much higher price than just a bad sunburn.
Today is not only ANZAC Day, but World Malaria Day, highlighting that half a million people worldwide still die annually from this disease. That’s five times the number of Australians who have died serving in every armed conflict combined, but 78 per cent of these deaths are children under five.
Malaria is caused by the parasite Plasmodium, transmitted through the bites of female Anopheles mosquitoes. The parasite multiplies in the liver of the infected person, then spreads through the bloodstream and impairs the functioning of internal organs.
I was lucky enough to remain completely healthy during my recent holiday – a week in beautiful Vanuatu – thanks to a daily prophylactic tablet my doctor prescribed. Simple to obtain, cheap, and effective protection against this deadly disease. However, preventative measures in poorer communities pale in comparison to what Australians can take for granted, consisting of insecticides, either sprayed in the home or used to treat bed nets, which mosquitoes are increasingly showing a resistance to in at least 60 countries.
The most common treatment for malaria is based around a fast-acting drug called artemisinin that destroys parasites within a week. But, worryingly, the World Health Organization is now reporting resistance to artemisinin in five Southeast Asian countries. The enemy is fighting back against our best line of defence – and the battle is right on our doorstep.
It is clear this is a race against the clock. So far, the only potential vaccine is still in its infancy, with further trials still needed and reliant on adequate funding.
Hence the vital role of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, founded in 2002 as a war chest to defeat these killers, and now responsible for financing half of all malaria programs globally. So far, the Global Fund has helped save 17 million lives worldwide, and deaths from malaria have been more than halved.
Last year, the Australian Government endorsed the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, including the goal of eradicating HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria as epidemics by the year 2030. To deliver on that promise, the Global Fund requires the Australian Government to contribute $300 million over the next three years – about $4 per Australian per year during this period.
But this is much more about common sense than dollars and cents. Australia’s investment in the Global Fund will ultimately prove an even better protection than prophylactic pills.
By helping our Asia-Pacific neighbours overcome the clutches of epidemics, we are also ensuring our own personal health and safety. Australia successfully eradicated malaria in 1981, but we could easily be in the firing line again – we still have Anopheles mosquitoes capable of transmitting the disease from an infected traveller, and climate change is extending their habitat towards larger population centres. If this happens, it would not just be those of us travelling abroad whose lives are at risk from a simple mosquito bite.
So let’s use this ANZAC Day and World Malaria Day to show our values of mateship and willingness to help out battlers. For the cost of a packet of ANZAC biscuits a year, we can all help the Global Fund win the war against terrible diseases such as malaria, and wave goodbye to the waves of these epidemics forever.
Marie Gregory-Naum is an advocate for RESULTS Australia, and is a keen traveller. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism, a Masters in Rehabilitation Counselling, and is currently studying Psychological First Aid online through Johns Hopkins University.
This article was first published in The Mercury.