Lots of churches are involved in fighting AIDS in Africa, while a more rampant and deadly disease–malaria–goes largely unnoticed, says Charles “T” Thomas, coordinator of the Cooperating Baptist Fellowship of Oklahoma.
Malaria is something that Thomas and his family take personally. As missionaries in Upper Volta (now called Burkina Faso) in the 1970s, their oldest of five daughters, Lindsi, nearly died from cerebral malaria as a small child.
Fortunately, she could be transported to the United States for treatment. That isn’t an option for most people, however, in sub-Saharan Africa, where 90 percent of people live on less than $1 a day.
Together over the Christmas holidays in 2003, the Thomas family was sitting around talking about the world’s problems, from global warming to poverty to health. Naturally the conversation turned to malaria.
One of the sisters, Whitni, who works with the New Economics Foundation in London, remarked that malaria is rapidly surpassing AIDS as the No. 1 killer in Africa.
T playfully slapped the table and said, “Let’s fix that.”
The youngest, Andi, a student at Furman University, who hopes to work as a missionary in Africa–emboldened by recent success of getting Fair Trade coffee brewed at her school–thought, “Maybe we will.”
Andi and her father soon co-founded His Nets, a non-profit, faith-based organization working to fight malaria through distribution of repellant-treated mosquito nets.
Following a test distribution of a few dozen nets in Kenya, last summer they traveled to Ghana, handing out 1,800 nets in partnership with the All-Africa Baptist Fellowship (a regional affiliate of the Baptist World Alliance).
Targeting pregnant women and children–those most susceptible to malaria death–they worked with hospitals, which also educated families in how to use the nets. In villages where there had been no nets before, deaths from malaria reportedly were reduced by half.
Malaria kills more than a million people a year–90 percent of them in Africa and 70 percent children under the age of 5. Yet it is an entirely preventable disease.
It is spread by mosquitoes. A mosquito net treated with insect repellant, costing $5-$6 wholesale, can protect an entire family for four to five years.
While even that meager amount is beyond the means of millions of people in sub-Saharan Africa and other impoverished places, it is well within the reach of Sunday school classes, children’s groups or individuals.
That means, Thomas says, that for about the cost of a fast-food meal or a movie ticket, a life could be saved. “Five or six dollars can mean the difference between life and death,” he said.
Americans concerned about Africa usually think only about HIV/AIDS. While that is a horrible disease, Thomas says, in many ways it is malaria that is keeping Africa down.
“It’s a huge medical problem,” Thomas said. “If we had a disease like this in America, we would hear a lot about it.”
His Nets has a board of directors that includes doctors, nurses, others in healthcare and communications professionals.
After raising more than $40,000 in 2005, mainly through word of mouth, Thomas said the organization has grown to the point that, “We’re trying to go big time.”
“We think we’re on to something good,” he told EthicsDaily.com. “We’re going to shoot for the moon.”
Following the big distribution in Ghana last summer, His Nets distributed 100 nets in India in partnership with Global Women, which was there holding a training meeting.
Distribution of 2,000 more nets is scheduled this summer in Ghana, followed by trips to Kenya and Burkina Faso this fall.
Thomas and his wife, Kathie, were missionaries for the Southern Baptist Convention Foreign Mission Board from 1974 until 1992. They served in Burkina Faso, France and Romania. They resigned from the FMB in 1992 and were appointed by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to minister to Gypsies in Romania.
They returned to the U.S. in 2000, when he became coordinator of missions for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida. He has been state coordinator for the CBF in Oklahoma since 2004.
Andi, who recently returned to Furman for her junior year, worked over the summer as an intern for His Nets.
In an article in the CBFO newsletter, she told the story of her sister’s illness and how it led to formation of His Nets to fight malaria.
“Why let someone else’s sister or brother die of this illness that has the possibility of being completely eliminated?” she wrote.
Her goal, she said, “with the help of generous contributions and God-given compassion,” would be for His Nets to stop malaria deaths for the equivalent of one day, saving 10,000 lives.
“An ambitious goal I know,” she commented, “but I guess I still have the idealism of youth.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Click here to visit the His Nets Web site.