First Lady Calls for Action to End Malaria

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Web-only excerpts from the 'News & Notes' interview with First Lady Laura Bush

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First lady Laura Bush speaks at the Accra Teacher Training Centre in Accra, Ghana, on Jan. 17, 2006. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
US First Lady Laura Bush

First lady Laura Bush speaks at the Accra Teacher Training Centre in Accra, Ghana, on Jan. 17, 2006.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

In December 2006, President Bush set aside April 25 as Malaria Awareness Day. Part of a sweeping new American effort to fight the disease globally, the day is intended to raise awareness of a preventable and curable disease that kills more than 1 million people each year.

Most of these deaths occur in Africa. First lady Laura Bush has traveled to the continent a number of times during her six years in the White House, and she has been speaking out about her experiences there. An excerpt of Farai Chideya's conversation with the first lady about efforts to end one of the world's deadliest diseases.

What is your goal with National Malaria Awareness Day? What do you hope to accomplish with this?

What we hope to accomplish is really to just get the word out so that people know that malaria is still a problem in many parts of the world.

We had malaria in the United States. There was malaria here in Washington along the Potomac, as well as along the Mississippi, and in a great part of the southeastern part of the United States. We eradicated it around the first of the last century. So we know it can be eradicated, and that makes it even more imperative for all of us to work together to make sure it's eradicated across sub-Saharan Africa.

You feel so bad and so sick when you have malaria that you wish you would just go ahead and die, one friend told me who had had it. We know that not only is it so difficult on everyone, and on families that lose their children, but also it's very difficult on governments and economies. When a lot of people are too sick to work, when the hospitals are filled with malaria, it really is very difficult for economies to get a good footing.

What's America's stake in this? There are a lot of issues that Americans have on their minds right now: the economy, national security. Why would someone who is already feeling maybe a little overburdened tune into this one?

Because there is something people can do that is very, very direct, and especially I'd like to reach out to families to think about involving your children in this. If you can raise $10, you can call Malaria No More... to give an insecticide-treated bed net to a child or a mother and a child in Africa, and save a life.

A lot of times in developing countries, including African nations, different diseases basically work together to keep people in a state of ill health, so you have not only malaria; you also have TB, you also have AIDS.

Well, they really do fit together, and the other piece that's a part of it is malnutrition. If your immune system is already compromised because of HIV or malaria or tuberculosis, malnutrition is that much harder on you. So there should be a very comprehensive approach to both eradicating malaria and at the same time treating people with HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis, and making sure that people get the food that they need, the nutrition they need to stay in good health.

Your husband has included faith-based organizations in all different walks of social programs. What is the upside to you, and is there a downside to doing that?

Well, the upside is that many of these faith-based organizations are already there... churches and synagogues... that are local. They are the one really trusted group — the church in the local community or the mosque in the local community. It's the one trusted group in the community. And so they are there already, they already know people, they already have a congregation and a way to reach out to, for instance, pass out bed nets or to help with spraying.

In South Africa, the government has been criticized recently for not doing enough to stop AIDS from anything ranging from the rape case, which ultimately did not result in a conviction against the deputy president and then – a view that the government as a whole has not been active enough. In the U.S. at this current point, we do not emphasize condoms as much as we emphasize abstinence when we talk about AIDS. Do you see that as a risk in America's role in fighting AIDS in Africa and around the world?

Well, the president's emergency plan on AIDS relief does emphasize the ABC program that has been effective in Uganda, which is abstinence, be faithful, and use — consistent use of condoms. So they do — they realize that there is a role for everything. I think there is a lot of criticism of discussing abstinence, but I think in a society where there are a lot of gender issues, it's very important for girls to know that they do not have to comply with the wishes of men, and that girls can remain abstinent. I think it's an important message, especially for girls to get, but for boys too.

And each part is important. Condoms are very important, and the use of condoms are very important, and we need to have that message out, sure. But I also think that the other two messages are important as well.

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