Malaria and the brokenness of my response  

Posted by Denis Haack in ,

The April 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine has an article that is worth the price of the magazine: “Slipping Through the Net: Cambodia’s border war against drug-resistant malaria” (pp. 39-47), by Matthew Power, a contributing editor. (Don’t worry about the cost, since there is more in the issue worth reading, including a short story by Alice Munro and a thoughtful piece on the growing use of mercenaries around the world.)

It turns out that until recently the news about malaria has been relatively good. Thanks to the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and dedicated professionals in the World Health Organization, the fight against malaria has been progressing well. Rates of infection have been falling, and in some parts of the world it appears the disease has been eradicated. Besides, there are drugs available to treat the disease, and efforts have been underway to educate people on the danger of malaria and to make this treatment both widely and inexpensively available. Then, a team of researchers discovered (and reported in the New England Journal of Medicine) that the parasite that causes the disease has developed resistance to the drug. The problem was uncovered in a remote area along the Cambodian border with Thailand. It’s a crucial area in the fight against the disease, since it has been shown that the disease in the past migrates from there across the border into Myanmar (formerly Burma), then across India to Africa, “where 90 percent of the world’s malaria cases occur.”

Mr. Power includes a paragraph in which he describes the process of the disease: “Here is how it kills: the parasite enters the blood through the slicing mouthparts and saliva of the Anopheles mosquito. It finds its way to the liver, where for a week or a month it divides asexually. Eventually, the swarm of parasites empties into the bloodstream, where they colonize red blood cells and burst them from within. Then come waves of fever followed by ebb tides of chills. The infected blood cells clump together and stick to vessel walls to avoid being drawn into the blood’s filters. Capillaries clog and hemorrhage; the whites of the eyes turn yellow, the fingernails white, the blood itself pale orange. Anemia, vomiting, and cramps follow. The spleen fills with destroyed blood cells and nearly doubles with size. In the great majority of cases, symptoms clear with treatment, or the victim recovers on his own, the disease little worse than a bad case of the flu. But in severe cases, especially in pregnant women and young children, the parasite overwhelms the host. The blood-brain barrier is breached, and cerebral malaria ensues: coma, organ failure, and death can occur within hours. The death of the host is of little evolutionary cost to the parasite. In the fever-wrack, or the weeks of dormancy, a single Anopheles mosquito lands, gorges itself on parasite-laden blood, and then flies away. A week later it feeds again, the falciparum [the malarial parasite] in its gut is transferred to a new host, and the cycle begins anew” (p. 39).

Malaria used to appear in the United States but that day is long past. Now it afflicts the poorest of the poor in a way that even when recovery occurs their energy and productivity has been badly sapped. As I read Power’s essay I reflected on how few mosquitoes I experience each summer, and even when I do feel their bite I do not fear catching malaria. Those so afflicted have far fewer resources with which to protect themselves.

I am not certain why I am posting this. I am grateful for the Gates, because if malaria is to be defeated (as smallpox was), huge amounts of funding will be required and I have no illusions that any donations I could make to the cause would be miniscule. Nor am I in any position to do anything directly. Once again, I am made aware of the brokenness of the world but can do nothing about it.

I can pray, of course. Pray that drug-resistant strain will be contained and eradicated, pray that more progress would occur beating back the disease, pray grace on the many WHO workers who so selflessly give of themselves to this work, pray that the King would return soon and restore the mosquito to its rightful place in God’s good world.

Yes, I can pray—but it doesn’t seem like that’s enough.

This entry was posted at Friday, March 16, 2012 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


A friend was sharing in our prayer meeting today that she learned about yet another devastating health issue women face in third world countries, and her heart is heavy. She doesn't have the finances to make changes, it feels like a drop in the bucket. Much like you describe yourself.
She knows, for now, all she can do is to pray, and yet, the heaviness haunts her.
Fast forward to some atheist photo I saw today where it looks like a celebrity is saying "What is God?" Well you know when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God's the guy that ignores you."
Ouch....those two thoughts together could really knock me off my game.
But all day, I've had this thing in head or my heart...We do live in this broken world. And, without sounding calloused, there is going to be brokenness. I could be discouraged, and doubt, but I think he answered my prayers a long time ago. He gave us a hope and a future.
I love the part of the Lord's prayer, "Thy Kingdom come." That's what I pray for. My heart aches that there is pain beyond my wildest understanding. But, he's not ignoring me. Every day, little by little, I make choices that I hope bring about his Kingdom: A kind smile to someone down on their luck. A choice to not get angry. A choice to give when no one is looking. A choice to eat healthy whole foods that nourish instead of quick and processed. I think each of these little things and so many more, they don't end Malaria or bring water to parched nations, but they are all I can contribute right now, and they are enough, if that is all I can do. And he sustains me. And I know that one day, just like the day I graduated from high school, though it felt like that day would never come, one day, we'll be with Him, and all things will be made new. (being with him is not even in the same league as graduation, but you get the gist)
And I don't mean to be trite. At all. I just have to get beyond our humanity, and remember how fleeting this life really is.

March 17, 2012 at 12:37 AM

I appreciated your comments. There is something about recognizing that we are not God and are called to trust him as God, that can be very hard. The common expectation among Christians is that if we trust him, really trust him, then we will feel a never ending river of peace flowing over us, world without end. The reality is so much more real, and hard. To trust and yet have to watch the brokenness unfold with little idea of his purposes or timing. Indeed, may his kingdom come.

March 17, 2012 at 8:47 AM

"Once again, I am made aware of the brokenness of the world but can do nothing about it."

So true, such a Lenten thought.

March 18, 2012 at 12:34 AM

This, like most things in life, is so complicated. I live in West Africa, and malaria is a big problem here. However, the problems look a little different. No one I know here, besides my own family, sleeps under mosquito nets, or has screens on their windows. They all know how malaria is prevented, but none of them take the necessary steps to prevent it. Even my friends who live in the village, who can get nets for free, won't sleep under them, because it is hot, and because no one has slept under them for generations. And because if we get malaria, it is because God has ordained that, and we can't move the hand of God.

A mosquito net can be purchased for about $2, yet people here would rather spend that $2 on something else, like credit for their cell phone. Preventing malaria in themselves and their children is not a value to people here.

I have read stories of organizations coming in and giving away tons of mosquito nets, and people try to use them for fishing. Or, in places where nets are used, the local mosquito net providers are out of a job because a well-meaning NGO has blanketed the community with free nets.

The root of malaria is sin, like all our problems in life. Until hearts are transformed by the redeeming work of Christ, malaria will always be a problem, even if we come up with a vaccine for it.

March 18, 2012 at 3:59 PM

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