One net at a time: Minot church fights malaria

This year Minot’s First Lutheran Church has joined the global struggle against malaria, a mosquito-borne illness which is caused by one of several related plasmodial parasites.

While symptomatically similar to a number of less fatal diseases, if left unchecked the affliction can lead to serious health complications and death. Though considered eradicated from the United States since 1951, at present between 200 million and 300 million cases occur annually around the world, with roughly half the world’s population living in malarial zones.

The World Health Organization estimates 655,000 people were killed by it last year alone, though they admit a range of calculable uncertainty that could put the figure at more than 900,000. Almost 90 percent of those cases live in Africa, many of these children.

First Lutheran Church’s senior pastor, the Rev. Ken Nelson, is no stranger to the disease. He contracted malaria once, during his five-year mission service in Tanzania with his wife, Marcella. “My wife and I had been married for three years,” he explained, before she had felt “the call; a prodding” for them to engage in missions work, sometime in 1988. After some months of searching for a program, they became connected with the global arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Churches in America (ELCA).

“At the time, I was an accountant,” said Nelson, explaining that the ELCA global mission had been looking for volunteers with financial backgrounds. The Nelsons left for Africa in March 1989. “I travelled often, doing financial and auditing work” for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania.

It was during one of his frequent trips around the country that Nelson came down with his case of malaria. “The American in you thinks it’s just the flu,” aches and general feverishness turning to nighttime sweats and an acute, shivering sickness. “The whole country was a malaria area,” he described. “I always brought my own net when I traveled. You never knew if they would provide you with one where you were going. You did your best not to become one of those” cases.

Nelson was fortunate, being well enough to make it back home in northwestern Tanzania for treatment. Many Africans contract the illness annually, sometimes multiply. In addition to death and debilitated health directly caused by malaria, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates an economic cost of at least $12 billion each year, due to the costs of treatment and lost labor hours. In communities reliant on subsistence agriculture, lost labor can mean ruined harvests, the consequences of which could be dire. For people who are already among the world’s poorest, the persistent drain caused by malaria keeps them living at the margins.

The pastor sees this epidemic as an unnecessary impediment to sub-Saharan Africa’s success. “It diminishes a people’s capability to live,” he said. “It doesn’t have to claim as many lives as it does. To think that it happens to people repeatedly throughout the year is a real shame.

“The biggest thing is to provide people with mosquito nets,” while focusing on health education and addressing infestation by mitigating favorable conditions for mosquitoes’ breeding. “The next best thing would be getting them prophylaxis,” or anti-malarial drugs, which Nelson admits would cost a lot without fully addressing the root causes of the problem. The nets cost just $10 apiece, can be used for years and be annually treated with a pesticide.

The ELCA has been campaigning against malaria for several years, one of many faith-based associations that have joined ranks with world health organizations, nonprofits, government agencies, and local communities to eradicate the disease. As a member church of one of ELCA’s 65 synods in the country, First Lutheran has made their drive a Lenten event, kicking off in February and wrapping up around Easter. The money they raise will go toward what is hoped to be $15 million collected before 2015, as part of a broader effort laid out by the United Nations Millenium Development Goals to eradicate the illness.

Funds collected by the ELCA go to Lutheran World Relief and its affiliates, which Nelson says is “very good at having personnel on the ground,” with local volunteers and community leaders working helping to keep track of the netting, making sure it gets to those most vulnerable and that they get used effectively. “You just have to get the population to realize that they can be living largely disease-free,” he said. To that end an emphasis is put on education, teaching people how to better protect themeselves, recognize the symptoms, and when to seek treatment.

Tangible progress has been made since the effort against malaria was renewed. Whereas in 2011 about one child was dying from the illness every 30 seconds, that figure has already been cut in half in just over a year. That the figure is now one every 60 seconds shows there is still a ways yet to go. Donations to the campaign can be made at First Lutheran Church, online at (www.elca.org/malaria), or by mail to: ELCA Malaria Campaign, P.O. Box 71764, Chicago, IL 60694-1764. Additionally as one of its fundraising benefits, First Lutheran has teamed up with Qdoba Mexican Grill, who today will be donating a percentage of its profits toward the cause when either given a coupon (available at the church offices) or shown the event posting on Qdoba’s Facebook page on patrons’ smart- or cellular phones.

Nelson would like to revisit Tanzania sometime in the near future. He and Marcella’s eldest daughter had been born toward the end of their tenure at a Kenyan hospital, but the family has not been back since leaving shortly afterward at the end of 1993. Reminiscing about an unfinished climb to the top of Mount Kilamanjaro or the view of Zambia’s majestic Victoria Falls from neighboring Zimbabwe, talking about wonderful people and their culture in his Minot office surrounded by the photos and souveniers from their mission, he wants to be able to share and enjoy some of the pleasures of those experiences with his wife and children.